Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange) talks to Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell (D-Windsor) during a break in the Senate's debate Thursday on an education bill.
Senate Appropriations Committee chair Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia), right, talks with fellow members about elements of a school consolidation bill Thursday in the Senate cloakroom.
When the Senate finally voted Thursday evening for a bill that sets the stage for forming larger school districts, the tally was 27-3. But the wide vote margin does not indicate the angst that went into getting there.
“I see a major disruption of Vermont tradition with inadequate justification,” Sen. Richard McCormack (D-Windsor), argued on the Senate floor before he voted against the bill.
“I, honest to God, believe it will make the system better,” Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) said.
Senators debated, stopped, conferred and debated some more for four-plus hours Thursday, wrestling with whether the bill, H.361, will help, hurt or do nothing for Vermont’s shrinking schools.
The bill is significantly different from a version passed earlier in the House, but both offer financial incentives for Vermont schools to work together to form larger school districts.
Supporters argue that will give smaller schools more flexibility and will allow them to withstand shrinking enrollment. Opponents fear the effort will force the small schools that they treasure to close. Some also say the bill will do nothing to curb rising property taxes.
“This bill doesn’t address the per-pupil spending,” said Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans). He plans to proposed a $14,900 per-pupil spending cap Friday, when the Senate takes a second vote on the bill.
Frustrations over what the bill didn’t do boiled to such a heating point that about three hours into the debate it appeared the bill might fall apart entirely. Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell (D-Windsor) stood to call for adjusting expectations, saying legislators will work on school funding in the future.
“I would ask that we recognize we have certain limitations,” Campbell said. “The actions taken by the Education Committee, I believe very strongly, will in fact bend the curve of our expenses in the next few years. It’s just one part in what we need to do.”
The Senate’s version is a softer approach — allowing for more time, fewer students in the new districts and fewer consequences for failing to act — than the version the House passed. The Senate also declined to include a property tax cap that the House approved with the goal of offering more immediate tax relief.
That’s a key difference the two chambers will have a week to work out in conference committee, said House Education Committee chair David Sharpe (D-Bristol). “The one thing missing in this is cost containment,” Sharpe said as he ducked into the Senate chamber to catch some of Thursday's debate.
The Senate made other changes that would negate savings the House sought. The House wants the phase out small-school grants, which cost the state $7.5 million. By a 23-7 vote, the Senate reinstated the grants.
Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden) said the bill allows those who can prove they are educationally and fiscally sound to stay on their own.
Concern over the bill’s impact on small schools is driving most of the opposition. One group went to the Statehouse on Thursday with a petition signed by 1,100 people calling on legislators to halt action on the bill.
“H.361 will not save money and it will force some very effective schools to close,” said Chris Tormey, a member of the Cabot school board.
On the Senate floor, Sen. Joe Benning (D-Caledonia) disagreed with the petitioners’ comments. “It occurred to me very clearly that the commentators have not read the deep weeds of this bill,” he said. “If you are indeed operating in an efficient way and you feel your children are getting a good education, this bill seeks to leave you alone."