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Surplus Education Dollars and Education Funding Changes Will Impact Local Tax Rate

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photo of brick school building taken from a hill above the school.
Union Elementary School. Photo by Carla Occaso.
The Montpelier Roxbury Public School Board discussed the state’s $90 million Education Surplus Fund at its meeting this month, even as board members expressed concerns over changes in funding formulas that could result in a property tax rate increase in 2023. 

Statewide Education Surplus Fund

Gov. Scott’s current budget proposal offers Vermont schools half of the $90 million dollars in the Education Fund Surplus. If that moves forward, property owners may receive an individual family rebate of $150 per parcel of land. A decision will be made at the end March. 

Some legislative leaders view the Education Fund Surplus as an opportunity to invest in Vermont schools to support students and teachers affected by the pandemic, as well as fund pensions of state employees, and address the remediation of harmful chemicals found when testing schools across the state for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). 

The MRPS Board considered surplus fund reinvestment options, which could be applied to ongoing pandemic issues, such as the mental health crisis experienced by students and staff, the continued learning gap, as well as the need for teachers due to shortages.

Kristen Plylar-Moore, urged the school board to advocate for the use of the funds being put toward education needs, not a rebate for homeowners. The Montpelier resident was the only one who commented during the public comment portion of the meeting, asking the board to advocate for students. Plylar-Moore said students deserve a rebate to address learning loss and requested the board advocate for students to the government. 

According to the education tax rate letter released by the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Taxes, “This forecasted surplus is one-time money, which means we must be careful not to use it in ways that build ongoing costs which would need to be covered by future property taxes.” The letter encouraged school districts to make strategic use of federal funding. 

“While the pandemic has created upheaval in so many areas of our society, the impact on our students — from an educational, social, and emotional perspective — has been among the most significant. That is why it remains so critical to help Vermont’s children and families recover so they can thrive long into the future.” 

Federal Grants

The state’s education fund surplus differs from federal grants managed by the Vermont Agency of Education, such as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund. But both revenue sources are related to the school district’s decision-making process on budgeting, and both are one-time funding opportunities. 

The school board met on Feb.16 to develop a proposal for the $2,230,394 in federal funds. Based on the overall feedback gathered, the board plans to update the community with next steps for using federal ESSER grants on March 29. 

Budgeting details are still up in the air, with many moving pieces to how the Montpelier-Roxbury district will move forward with the surplus funds based on legislative plans. In the meantime, the board considered community values and whether to join the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, an equity coalition advocating for representation for English language learners and low-income students within the current funding formula. The coalition proposes that some use of the $90 million surplus relates to equity. 

Funding Formula Changes May Increase Local Property Tax Rate

The district enrolled 12 new learners through the Afghan refugee relocation program. Currently the pupil spending weights do not accommodate these learners, who were not factored into the current budgeting decisions because of their being recently enrolled. 

According to the Coalition’s website, “Our coalition is advocating that the legislature adopt the recommendations of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report during the current 2021/2022 legislative biennium. By finally correcting the flawed formula, districts that have been suffering for decades under the incorrect weights will finally have their fair share of an equitably distributed education fund.”

On Feb. 3, Superintendent Libby Bonesteel testified before the legislature on the budgetary implications of welcoming new English language learners to the district and its impact on the system amid the current pupil weighting system. 

“Superintendents are being asked to provide context, data, and opinion regarding the choices the legislature has in front of them — the legislature is considering changing the way per-pupil costs are tabulated in the budgeting process for school districts,” said Bonesteel. 

Some of ‘the choices’ refer to the current funding formula, which would increase tax rates for all districts within the current education funding formula and fail to upgrade the current weighting system in order to service the needs of English language learners and low-income families. 

According to the Vermont School Board Association’s testimony, the current funding calculation, referred to as the ‘pupil weighting system,’ would “add $40 million dollars to the top of the Education Fund.”

Business Manager Grant Geisler said, “If the new weighting takes effect (in the future), our pupil count will likely drop, which would increase our spending per pupil. If spending per pupil increases, so does the tax rate.” 

The board expressed a fear of becoming more elite and exclusive as a district with a higher tax rate. If there is a significant tax rate increase, the board hopes for a transition period to deal with the tax burden over time. 

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