Bill to help districts adjust to 'phantom student' loss

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The 2017 legislative session is in full swing. Last month was the deadline for new bills to be filed in the House, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to provide an update on some of the legislation I have introduced and the issues I am working on.

H183: Mitigating elimination of "phantom students"

H183 is a bill that I have introduced that will be of particular interest to residents of Jamaica. Across the state, many Vermont schools have seen a steady decline in student enrollment. Some schools, including Leland & Gray UHS, have experienced significant enrollment declines in recent years. Because education property tax rates are tied to the cost per student under Vermont's education funding formula, declining student enrollment can drive up tax rates, even while budgets are level funded.

Until recently, there was a mechanism in the education funding formula that provided school districts with some forgiveness for sudden enrollment declines. In simple terms, this provision allowed districts to count students that did not really exist, leading to the term "phantom students." The original intent was to smooth out sudden, steep declines, but a quirk in the law allowed districts to, under the right conditions, accumulate and carry forward these phantom students into future years, resulting in an artificially low cost per student (and lower tax rate). This quirk was recently "fixed," and the phantom students carried forward from prior years were eliminated.

While the elimination of these phantom students allows for the presentation of a more accurate cost per student figure (and fairness in tax calculation), school districts were provided little time to adjust to this new financial reality. Districts with large numbers of phantom students, including the Leland & Gray district, were put in the unenviable position of having to make immediate budget cuts, or face large tax increases, rather than making a more gradual transition.

H183 would provide a financial "bridge" to help school districts losing "phantom students" transition to a more sustainable budget. This is now before the House Education Committee, where I am hopeful that it will be given some consideration. Should this bill move forward and become law, it would provide immediate budget relief for Leland & Gray.

Threats to School Choice

Also on the education front, I am actively monitoring the situation with the State Board of Education's attempts to undermine school choice, which is of particular interest to residents of Londonderry, Stratton, Weston, and Winhall. I strongly believe that the decision to operate a public school or offer school choice should be one that local school districts make. I have heard, loud and clear, from constituents in these communities who deeply value this system. I will continue to vigorously defend the right of these communities to offer school choice.

We are also dealing with legislative attempts to undermine school choice, including H267, a bill that would prohibit school districts from paying tuition to any independent school. This would effectively make Burr & Burton Academy, Long Trail School, The Mountain School at Winhall, and Stratton Mountain School inaccessible to all students, except those whose families would pay the full tuition. As a practical matter, it would make high school inaccessible for hundreds of students in the Manchester and the Mountains area, as there is no public high school in the area! Needless to say, I will be working to ensure that this bill does not advance.

As always, if there are other bills or issues that are of particular interest to you, please feel free to reach out to me.

Oliver Olsen (I-Londonderry) represents the Windham-Bennington-Windsor District in the Vermont House of Representatives.

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