Sunday, March 2, 2014

Town Meeting Report from Representative Mark Huntley


Dear friends and neighbors, it continues to be an honor and a privilege to serve you. Many thanks to those of you who have contacted me.I appreciate your questions, concerns and ideas. 

 I hope to hear from more of you soon!

You can contact me at 802-236-6722 or email at

Education Property Tax

The Success Story:  Last year, Vermont’s students ranked 2nd in the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. Similar test scores showed that if Vermont was its own county, our students would rank 7th in world in academic performance. Again this year, Vermont claimed the highest graduation rate in the country with over 91% of our high school freshman graduating on time. Regardless of your position about Vermont’s generous per pupil spending and low student-to-teachers ratios, we know that our commitment to education—at the state and community level—is strong and yields excellent results. 

The Inspiration: Very few would dispute that standardized lessons, high-stakes testing, compartmentalized instruction, and antiquated calendars are at odds with cultivating the next generation of leaders, problem-solvers, and innovators. Gone are the days when preparing for the workforce and preparing for citizenship were competing goals—now they are one and the same. 

As a system and as a society—we must shift from measuring the value of education by the success of schools and instead focus on the success of students. We should enable educators to share their talents in a flipped classroom, helping students to produce information instead of simply consuming it. We must elevate respect for the process of learning through trial & error, and embrace the use of intrinsic motivators—rather than extrinsic—to help students learn. We need a 21st century delivery system to make this happen

The Challenge: Vermont is facing a crisis of confidence in our education delivery and funding systems. Our ability to provide equitable access to 21st century, world-class learning opportunities for Vermont’s children has been stifled by leadership instability, nonexistent or inconsistent
assessment tools, lack of structural coherence across governing units, and barriers in addressing state and federal requirements.

 According to the Agency of Education, there are dozen types of schools in Vermont—of varying sizes—all of which have their own approach to delivering education and reporting outcomes. The complexity of the current system makes it difficult to focus on improvements in student learning, favors redundancy, and weakens our ability to identify and remedy inefficiencies fiscal management. It’s time to decide if we really are maximizing our the value of our education dollars

Updating Vermont’s Education System The legislature is considering updating Vermont’s education system to ensure that it provides our students with the core competencies needed for our workforce and citizenship in the 21st century.  For over a century, Vermont’s education structure has remained largely unchanged. Our current system was established in 1892 when 2,500 school districts became 300 town-based districts.  Today there are 277 districts, 282 school boards, 340 governing units (including supervisory union boards), 1440 school board members, 320 schools, 62 supervisory unions and districts; and 85,000 students.  In 1892 there were 97,000 students. 

Supervisory unions were formed in 1912 to establish statewide qualifications for teachers and standards for teaching.  Today, superintendents manage and coordinate the delivery of education in a supervisory district or supervisory union, both of which are responsible for coordinating preK-12 grade education.  They differ in that a supervisory district is governed by a single board and a supervisory union may represent multiple towns and include regional high schools, career technical centers, union high schools, elementary, and supervisory union boards.  Supervisory unions have produced cost savings but provide little transparency.  By expanding school districts to include supervisory duties and presenting voters with a universal budget, voters will be afforded greater transparency and budgetary oversight.  

We have been spending significant time addressing structural concerns and escalating costs related to the Education Fund. The House will vote on the base property tax rates after school budgets are approved at town meetings.

In the immediate fiscal year, The Agency of Education is projecting $47.6 million in new education spending, $10 million more in other pressures such as special education, and $20 million required to account for the use of one-time funds last year. This is projected to result in an increase per hundred dollars of home value on the homestead property tax for those who pay their residential education property tax by the penny rate. It will also result in an increase in the base income education rate to 1.84%. If projections hold, we may also need to increase the commercial rate as well. Approximately two thirds of Vermonters who make less than $90,000 pay by income.

It is the responsibility of the legislature to raise the money passed by voters in their school budgets. We are assessing the possible use of $11.8 million in supplemental property tax relief to either reduce the overall burden or create targeted incentives for controlling spending.

We are looking at statewide conditions that place additional burdens on the Education Fund, including declining grand list value, loss of federal funds, and fewer students. Some of the proposals in discussion for reining in education spending in FY15 and beyond include limiting annual per-pupil spending to the rate of inflation, extending the slope for middle-taxpayers, phasing out the small schools grant, modifying the renter rebate program, replacing the common level of appraisal with rolling appraisals, and reducing the cushion in the equalized pupil calculation for districts that gain or lose students quickly.

We look forward to working collaboratively with municipal and school leaders to ensure the best outcomes for our children with a sustainable and fair education funding system.

Vermont Health Connect

The Health Care committee continues to keep close watch on the enrollment updates and the technical challenges with Vermont Health Connect. The good news in Vermont is that our insurance carriers, our navigators and our health care providers are working very closely together to be sure that Vermonters don't see a lapse in coverage because of the technical glitches. The value of this cooperation really can't be overlooked. Although there are still technical problems with the VHC web site, the insurers are working very hard to do what is right by Vermonters. 

As we come to the end of the open enrollment period, it is very important for Vermonters who are uninsured or were on VHAP or Catamount need to get on the Vermont Health Connect website and enroll by March 15 for coverage beginning on April 1. If you have insurance now that renews later in the year, you will still be able to enroll on your enrollment anniversary. If you need help resolving an application that is in process or if you need to enroll please contact me and I can help you get connected with an enrollment navigator.

Small Business Health Care Update

In January it became clear to the Health Care committee that the Vermont Health Connect website would not be working in time to allow Vermont small businesses to enroll employees for April 1 coverage. The legislature was pleased to hear Gov. Shumlin make a clear statement that businesses would be able to enroll directly with the insurance carriers, bypassing the website that is not functioning. This provided clarity to businesses, which has been a relief. If your business renews its insurance coverage later this year, you may still go directly to the carriers until such time as the website is up and working properly. The Health Care committee is getting weekly updates from VHC and the insurers to hear of any challenges. Blue Cross and MVP have staff on call to help businesses enroll their employees.

Hands-free Cell Phones & Distracted Driving

Hands-free Cell Phones & Distracted Driving Highway safety is a long-standing priority of the Legislature. This year, the House passed a bill to allow hands-free only use of electronic devices except in the case of an emergency or for law enforcement and emergency personnel. 

 This expands current law, which prohibits hand-held cell phones in work zones. H.62 brings that law into place statewide. Hand held cell phone use, like drunk and drugged driving, poses a significant threat. The committee heard testimony about studies that compared the distractions associated with holding a cell phone to that of driving intoxicated. All Vermonters have seen drivers weaving, speeding or looking down at a cell phone while they move along our roads. Distracted drivers who are texting, scrolling through contacts to find a number or typing an email are a growing concern to police and other emergency responders. Twelve other states and the District of Columbia have hands-free only laws 

The Appropriations Process 

Each January, economists forecast state revenues upon which the budget is based. The Appropriations Committee hears detailed testimony on the Governor’s proposed budget from state agencies and the public before recommending changes. We are shifting away from a focus on spending increases and decreases to ‘Results Based Accountability’. RBA analyzes measurable outcomes and costs, program by program. 

Three questions are paramount: 1) What are we doing? 2) How well are we doing it? 3) Is anyone better off? In focusing on results, we aim to keep Vermonters healthy and well educated, our economy thriving and expanding, and our water and air clean so that we may all have opportunities to improve our own lives

This Legislative Update was not paid for at government expense. Paid for by Mark Huntley

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