At the next regular meeting of the Champlain Islands School District school board in June, board members will grapple with a thorny question: how to fill a budget hole of about $280,000.
This sum is approximately equivalent to three jobs. Now the school board must decide which positions to leave vacant: should the board decline to take on an advisory role? A music teacher? A French teacher? A maintenance manager?
“It’s the optional things that always suffer,” said Michael Inners, chair of the Champlain Islands School Board. “These are the language programs; it’s art, music, student support, athletics.
Across Vermont, local school authorities face similar funding holes. The cause? Act 173, a law passed by the Vermont Legislature in 2018 that changes how special education funds are distributed to school districts.
Although this law has been in effect for four years, some of its most important provisions — those that some school officials say hurt their districts — are taking effect now.
For years, schools have funded their special education services through a reimbursement model.
According to Mary Lundeen, former president of the Vermont Board of Special Education Administrators.
But this process was widely seen as overly bureaucratic and expensive.
Studies found the state was spending millions more than it should have on special education, and officials said completing the reimbursement process was cumbersome and time-consuming.
“The funding was so restrictive that you really had to document every minute of a special educator’s day and make sure she was (spent) doing special education things,” Lundeen said.
Thus, in 2018, the legislator passed a law aimed at overhauling the funding process. Instead of reimbursing districts for their costs, the Education Agency would simply provide “census block grants” – direct payments to districts based on the number of students in each district.
This change is intended to both save money and give schools more flexibility in how they spend their share. After some delay, the new block grant model is expected to come into effect in the upcoming 2022-23 school year.
But some school officials see problems with how this is being rolled out.
For many districts, like the Unified Union of the Champlain Islands, the change means they will simply receive less money for special education than before.
Between the current school year and the upcoming school year, the state of Vermont is expected to spend about $16 million less on special education under the new system, according to data provided by Chief Financial Officer Brad James. agency education. That could change, however, if Governor Phil Scott vetoes legislation on the subject.
According to James’ data, about three-quarters of school districts and supervisory unions in Vermont are expected to lose money under the new funding model.
In the North Country Supervisory Union, schools will face a shortfall of about $1 million over the next school year, Superintendent John Castle said.
The new model “is inherently inequitable,” Castle said. The system assumes that the prevalence of special education students is consistent across the state, which he argued ignores the fact that some low-income districts have greater need than their counterparts.
“There is a relationship (between) poverty and increased need for special education services,” Castle said.
Emilie Knisley, superintendent of the Orange East Supervisory Union, said in an interview in early spring that her districts would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars a year with the change.
“The money we’re getting in the block grant isn’t big enough to make up for the loss,” Knisley said, though she noted that strong tax revenue and federal pandemic assistance have helped. balance budgets for the coming year.
But this change does not necessarily mean that special education services will be eliminated. Federal regulations protect special education services in schools, which means districts could be forced to cut budgets — or spend more — in other areas.
“(If) you’re forced to make cuts in order to make a budget reasonable for taxpayers, the things you’re looking at cutting are math or reading intervention services for students, or things like that,” Knisley said. “Because it’s not like you can eliminate the second year.”
Because Law 173 was passed in 2018, the change in funding system was not a surprise.
But some school districts expected the change to be accompanied by another big financial reform: the upgrade to Vermont’s school funding formula, which the governor signed on May 23 and is expected to begin rolling out. enter into force in 2024.
These upgrades are expected to offset at least some of the losses associated with moving to special education.
The two changes “must go together,” Kingdom East School District Superintendent Jen Botzojorns wrote in testimony to legislators. “One without the other contradicts the very law that must be enacted.”
But lawmakers ultimately chose not to delay the block grant system, even though they did. twist rolling out to allow many districts to secure more funds for the upcoming school year. This is intended to provide a cushion for the first year, should Governor Phil Scott sign the bill.
Incumbent Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, who chaired the House Education Committee in the just-concluded legislative session, said lawmakers have been reluctant to delay Bill 173 any further.
Reforms to the Special Education Act are “the best response to students who have lost ground during the pandemic,” she said.
She noted that some districts, like those in the Orange East Supervisory Union, have been able to fill budget holes with strong tax returns and federal pandemic relief funds.
“We know this conversation is not over,” she said. “Let’s implement Law 173, get things moving, and then we can tackle some of the financial considerations in the years to come.”
Possible legal action
But without delay, some districts could face at least two years of financial losses before the two new systems are implemented.
This will unfairly affect Vermont districts, especially those most reliant on special education services, said Castle, the North Country superintendent.
He pointed to a section of Bill 173 which directs the Education Agency to ‘review and make recommendations’ on whether districts with more special educational needs should receive larger block grants. .
The law notes that “the General Assembly intends to reconsider this matter after receiving this recommendation and prior to the implementation of the census-based model.”
None of that happened, he said.
Ted Fisher, spokesman for the Education Agency, said the issue was “something we will need to monitor over time as new systems come into effect”.
“With the updated weights not going into effect until (fiscal year) 2025 and the census-based funding model still not in effect, it’s likely any changes would be premature,” Fisher said in an e -mail.
But Castle raised the possibility of legal action over what he sees as a failure to act – an option the board of directors of the North Country Supervisory Union should consider, he said. declared.
“There’s a tendency to dismiss this issue by the legislature and by the (education) secretary,” Castle said. “And at some point, if it takes litigation to get someone’s attention, maybe that’s what it takes.”
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