End of the Legislative Session Signaled
In late April, the US Department of Education issued interim final requirements for the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (“ARP ESSER”). There was some concern that these interim final requirements preempted the legislature’s authority to appropriate ESSER funds, which would have impacted several bills that include appropriations from ESSER funds. To help answer that question, the committee heard from Austin Reid, National Conference of State Legislatures, James DesMarais and Rebecca Wasserman, legislative counsel, Stephen Klein and Catherine Benham, Joint Fiscal Office who unequivocally agree that the legislature has the authority to appropriate ESSER funds. The issue was put to rest and the bills that currently include appropriations from ESSER funds will continue to make their way through the legislative process.
H.439, the State’s “Big” Budget and Capital Bill, passed out of the House on Thursday and includes language to address retirement obligations as well as PCB testing in schools. The bill is incredibly complicated and reallocates Coronavirus Relief Funds while also appropriating more than $1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and one-time General Fund revenues. The Education Fund is $7.7 million ahead of projections, mostly due to sales tax and lottery revenues that are believed to reflect stimulus spending. When it passes out of the Senate, the bill will likely go to conference committee to work out any differences between the House- and Senate-passed versions of the bill. More details regarding the provisions of this bill will be provided as it moves through the final stages of the legislative process.
The House Education Committee unanimously passed S.13, An Act relating to the implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report. The bill creates a six-member legislative task force that will recommend to the General Assembly, on or before January 15, 2022, an action plan and proposed legislation to ensure that all public school students have equitable access to educational opportunities, and requires the legislature to pass legislation next year to implement changes to education funding, which will be phased in over time. The task force must consider the Pupil Weighting Factors Report as well as other policy considerations outlined in the Pupil Weighting Report, such as how to integrate the weighting calculations with Vermont’s equalized pupil calculations, excess spending threshold, and yield calculations, how categorical aid could be used to address cost differentials across schools, and the relationship between the recommended weights and categorical aid and the changes to special education funding under Act 173. In addition, the task force will address transparency on the recommended weights and categorical aid and will consider statutory changes to ensure that school districts meet education quality standards and improve student outcomes.
Members of the task force will include the Chair or designee from the Senate Committees on Finance and Education, House Committees on Ways and Means and Education, Secretary of Education or designee, and the Chair of the State Board of Education or designee; the Task Force may retain a consultant(s) as needed and will collaborate with the Vermont Superintendents Association, Vermont School Boards Association, Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators, Vermont Principals Association, Vermont Independent Schools Association, and Vermont National Education Association. The bill includes an appropriation from the General Fund to cover per diem and reimbursement expenses for task force members, and consultant expenses if needed. The bill is now in House Ways and Means and expected to be on the House floor this week.
S.100 passed in the Senate last week and is now titled “Universal School Breakfast and Creation of the Task Force on Universal School Lunch Act.” Universal meals will be provided through the federal meals program during the 2021-2022 school year during which time the task force will develop recommendations on how, not later than the 2026-2027 school year, to achieve the goal of providing universal school meals for all public school students and the funding source(s) for both breakfast and lunch. Effective July 1, 2022 Universal breakfast will be provided at an estimate of $8 million annually (from the Education Fund). The cost of universal meals is estimated at $24-40 million annually. The Senate Finance Committee expressed concern about the burden of this long-term liability concurrent with the State’s worrisome pension liabilities. S.100 excludes costs of providing school breakfast and lunch from the excess spending threshold.
H.449, relating to the membership and duties of the Vermont Pension Investment Commission and the creation of the Pension Benefits, Design, and Funding Task Force was taken up in both Senate Government Operations and Senate Education. On April 30th, the Senate Committee on Government Operations requested a new draft of the bill which changes the composition of the task force to include two members of the House of Representatives, two members of the Senate, the Secretary of Administration (or designee), the Treasurer's Office, two representatives from the VT State Employees Association, one representative from Vermont Troopers Association, and three members from VTNEA. The bill also creates a Joint Legislative Pension Oversight Committee for the purpose of exercising oversight over the Vermont State Employees’ Retirement System and the Vermont State Teachers’ Retirement System, and working with and providing assistance to other legislative committees on matters related to the State's retirement system. The new draft is expected to be in committee for review on Monday, May 3rd and on the Senate floor later this week.
House Appropriations unanimously voted out S.115 and S.16 as recommended by House Education. These bills appear on the House Calendar on Tuesday, May 4th. As reported previously, S.115 is the Miscellaneous Education bill and S.16, relates to school exclusionary discipline reform, and creating a task force on Equitable and Inclusive School Environments. S.16 is scheduled for testimony in Senate Education in the coming week.
Second Reading of H.426 (addressing the needs and conditions of public school facilities in the State) appears on the Senate Notice calendar for Tuesday, May 4th.
S.114 (improving prekindergarten through grade 12 literacy within the State) appears on the Senate Action calendar for Tuesday, May 4th as unfinished business related to the House proposal of amendment.
The legislative session is expected to wrap up around May 22nd. A full, detailed legislative report will be provided after the conclusion of the session.