(Host) School budget issues loomed large over many town meetings on Tuesday. In the resort towns of the Mad River Valley, voters expressed their dislike of the Act 60 school funding law. They supported resolutions that urged town officials not to pay a portion of the state education tax.
VPR’s John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) Act 60 has few allies in Waitsfield, a town of about 1,500 people. That was clear even before voters debated a resolution that calls on the selectboard to consider a tax revolt.
Voters gave a thunderous round of applause to James Parker, an Act 60 opponent who lives in the neighboring town of Warren. Parker drafted the non-binding resolution that says officials may withhold a portion of the statewide property tax used to fund education.
Moderator Peter Joslin reminded the crowd that since Parker doesn’t live in Waitsfield, the meeting had to vote to allow him to speak.
(Joslin) “Does the assembly give its consent to hear from James Parker, who offered the resolution?”
(Assembled voters) “Yes!”
(Joslin) “Jim, why don’t you come up here?” (Sound of applause.)
(Dillon) Parker was clear that the selectboard was flirting with civil disobedience if it followed his resolution and refused to pay the state tax:
(Parker) “What we are asking of the selectboard is illegal. However, America is founded on this very principle of challenging unfair taxation. It was illegal then, too.”
(Dillon) But Parker’s argument and his tactics were challenged by a number of voters. Helen Myers of Waitsfield says Act 60 has worked to equalize the educational opportunity for all Vermont children. Myers is a former teacher, and she told the meeting that quality education can’t be done on the cheap:
(Myers) “Now, obviously many of you feel your property taxes are too high. Well, I’m not going to fool you, a good education costs money. And if we don’t do pay it with the property taxes, we’ll pay it with some other tax. Or else we’ll decide not to have good schools. That is the simple fact.”
(Dillon) Eventually, Waitsfield voters overwhelmingly supported the anti-Act 60 resolution. Voters and town officials say it’s time to send a message to Montpelier that they feel the law is broken.
Up the road in nearby Fayston, voters also backed the resolution. Selectman Jared Cadwell says the resolution is non-binding, so it’s unlikely the town will break the law by not paying the state tax. Cadwell says voters are clearly frustrated by rising property taxes:
(Cadwell) “It’s just gotten to the point where I think people feel like there’s an unfair burden placed on property for funding an essential service like education. We all agree on funding education at its most efficient and effective level. But the property tax has just become a weight that can’t be borne.”
(Dillon) In the Mad River Valley – and many other towns around Vermont – property tax rates are rising much higher than school budgets. That’s because a provision of Act 60 says the state can adjust property taxes when property values are under-appraised.
Despite the anti-Act 60 sentiment in Waitsfield, voters did approve the school budget with little debate. The budget will lead to a 34-cent increase in the tax rate. Officials say about 21 cents of that increase is due to Act 60.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Waitsfield.