Voters use school budget to protest Act 60

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(Host) Dozens of school budgets are before voters Tuesday. And in many cases, the voters face sizeable tax increases, even though school officials have held the line on spending. The tax hikes have prompted calls to change the Act 60 school funding law. Act 60 opponents have asked voters in some towns to protest the law by withholding a portion of their school taxes.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The battle lines are clearly drawn over Act 60, Vermont’s six-year-old school funding law. Even before Town Meeting Day, 34 towns joined together to challenge the way the state administers the law. The state’s largest newspaper, the Burlington Free Press, has also called for a taxpayer rebellion. The paper says voters should turn down school budgets as a way to tell Montpelier the law isn’t working. And in the Mad River Valley, a group calling itself Re-Act 60 wants towns to protest by withholding a portion of their statewide school property tax.

Jim Parker is a businessman from Warren who’s leading the anti-Act 60 effort. Parker says Vermonters usually are willing to pay for their schools. But he says they may not do so this year:

(Parker) “It’s not been the history of Vermonters. We support our schools every way we can. However, the Legislature is not moving. They just want to play politics with this thing. As a result, I can see many towns moving toward voting down their school budgets. It’s a shame and it’s going to be hard for them to do it. But it might be the next best way to send a message, fix it now.”

(Dillon) In many towns, the Act 60 funding mechanism has led to large tax increases, even though school budgets are up only slightly. That’s because property values are rising. And the state adjusts the school tax rates when property is under-appraised.

This situation hit home in Hartford last weekend. Voters weekend approved a $19 million school budget that could lead to a 14% tax increase, even though school spending was up only about 5%. Superintendent Carl Mock says voters could make a distinction between the budget issues and the Act 60 funding mechanism. But he says their patience may be wearing thin:

(Mock) “Most people recognized the fact that this was a problem that needed Legislative address and at least for this year, they felt they needed to support the school budget. I will say there were a number of people, a number of even of our supporters came up and said, ‘Boy, I hope this doesn’t continue to happen. Something’s got to be done.’ And we certainly recognize that too. And the board’s been in touch with the legislative contingent here, and making that opinion well known.”

(Dillon) The Legislature is sharply divided on Act 60 reform. A plan passed by the Senate would send more money back to the schools as a way to lower property taxes. The House, however, wants to shift education funding away from the property tax and instead pay for schools with sales and income taxes.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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