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The Valley Reporter
P.O. Box 119
Waitsfield, VT 05673

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The Act 60/68 disease


By Gene Bifano

This opinion piece is directed to State Representative Carol Hosford.

I have wondered what is in your mind and the mind of your fellow legislators by sustaining Act 60/68 when you should be dissolving it. It was founded on faulty principles, developed and deployed with little or no thought on how it should operate. It was a failure from the first thought.

First, it was founded on the Robin Hood principle of robbing from the rich out-of-staters to pay for our education system. This is known to be true simply by the term d'art used for where they reside "Gold Towns." It is clear the policy doesn't make sense. Nor has the intended goal of having out-of-staters pay the education burden worked well. As it turns out, Vermonters are suffering more than out-of-staters. It is an unmitigated disaster.

It has in fact helped destroy Vermont families, farms, businesses and slowly its economy. It has, in fact, polarized Vermonters and put them at odds with one another. It has alienated one of the mainstays of its economy, the flatlanders.  And, it hasn't met the basic goal of providing an "equal," whatever that is, education.

Secondly, there was no thought as to what fair, equal or good education is or was. It was based simply on money. The legislators' thought process was that if everyone spends a lot of money the courts will be happy and they could feel good. That was the thought process and it's evident by how Act 60/68 has developed and is administered.

Thirdly, there is no oversight on what or how money was or is spent. There is no plan as to how those funds will benefit the education of our students. Recipient towns just submit a budget and, hell, let someone else pay for it. The recipe for the disaster we now have.

When people can spend other people's money without consequence, the outcome is predictable. How much money was spent on athletics, other non-essential services and raising teachers' salaries that other communities had to pay for? Putting a cap on spending is not the answer either. Donor communities are limiting their spending already to avoid totally destroying their town taxpayers.

Fourthly, another consequence of Act 60/68 is that towns are forced to limit their own spending for their plans and goals lest they place an even heavier burden on their taxpayers. I know this to be true in Warren. The select board struggles with our budget in an effort to keep it flat, which is admirable. But it's at the expense of impassable roads five or six times a year, 25-year-old and secondhand fire apparatus and other infrastructure needs.

This is truly a simple problem to solve.

1. Dissolve Act 60/68 and let each community fund its own education -- if they have to pay for it, not someone else, they will try to control their spending. And if they don't, it's their problem, not anyone else's.

2. If a community is too small to fund its own schools they must merge with others to develop the mass necessary to fund their education. It's that simple! The concept of local control is fallacious at best. One has to ask what in fact do they control? The principal they hire? The curriculum? Are they concerned that people in the next town are stupid and can't see "their" vision -- what?  

But it seems the regional high and technical schools were developed because Vermonters, a long time go, recognized they just couldn't afford these schools. And merging school districts doesn't simply mean moving kids from one town to another. It means spreading the burden of the cost over a larger mass and using funds and resources more wisely.

If we in Warren are paying $2 for every $1 we spend on Warren School, then we should have control of the schools we are paying for. After all, it is our money.

3. The state needs to actually define specific education criteria that in turn define what an "equal" education is, or what more correctly resembles an "equalized" education. After all, we should all understand there is no such thing as "equal" except in mathematics.

In one way, shape or form there will always be inequality -- it's a human condition. When I consulted for the city of New York it became clear that although the city and state allocated funds based on pupils and other considerations -- parents of some schools raised or donated funds for what they thought they needed: athletic fields, telephone and computer systems, better sports equipment, etc. Each district has its own needs or idea of its needs, so how can there be equality? Parents that are concerned address them? Some kids are smarter than others or have a better aptitude for learning and some parents are more involved, etc., etc. And simply put some communities have more money to pay for something better -- but they can't provide the same spending for everyone. The goose can only lay so many golden eggs before it dies or just stops producing them.

4. For school districts that are on the cusps self support, but just aren't there, the state, using their criteria for an "equalized" education, can fund the difference of what they have and what they need. And they do it with "oversight," in other words make sure the district funding goals are appropriate and it meets generally the criteria that have been developed. However, this funding will not cover salaries.

5. Redefine the criteria for special education. It's become a game and a drain on taxpayers. Here's a clear case of good intentions that has gone whacky.

There is a way to define the tenets of a quality education, which one can easily develop should they take the time to think about it. It can be done in the context of the court order, which makes it easy. There are national criteria that have been developed, such as reasonable class size, technology needs, infrastructure needs, etc. Develop quality standards and testing to see if the kids are learning the same. After all, that's what equal education is all about -- the kids all learning their ABC's. If they're not, fix it. But not just by spending more money.

This doesn't have to cost a lot of money to do. The state could create an ad hoc committee of its citizens with a firm deadline to develop these standards. A committee which is dissolved at the end of its tenure, by statute, so it doesn't develop a life of its own.

As a mayor, when I inherited huge fines from the EPA relative to our water system, I put together an ad hoc committee of residents, which consisted of doctors, lawyers, lay people, Ph.D.s in science and engineers. We hired a consultant to work with them to answer questions -- but not do the work. They did an in-depth study of all our options, including cost analysis with recommendations. This study enabled the board to make immediate decisions to improve our water supply, and staved off the fines until we could move forward with a solution.

But, the legislators aren't inclined to budge on Act 60/68; they have their eyes on Act 68/60 funds for other state initiatives. The legislators' laziness and desire to play Robin Hood has made Vermont the most highly taxed state in the U.S.A. while destroying farms, family businesses and running Vermonters out of the state -- simply brilliant.

And while legislators bemoan affordable housing they are the single biggest reason housing isn't affordable -- imagine that.

Oh yes, lest I forget, the idea of placing all teachers under a state contract is actually worse then Act 60/68, as is spending caps for obvious reasons too numerous to elaborate in this letter.

So I ask you again -- what are you doing to rid us of Act 60/68?  What are you doing to help preserve Vermont for Vermonters? Caps on spending are just as idiotic as Act 60/68 -- it doesn't solve the basic problem -- it simply tries to address the symptom of the Act 60/68 disease.

Eugene J. Bifano lives in Warren.

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