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Final Legislative Blog of the 2021 Session

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H.439, the State’s Budget Bill, has been referred to a Committee of Conference. Highlighted below are three important provisions in the Senate proposal of amendment to H.439:


First,

  • Section E.515 makes a first time appropriation from the Education Fund for the normal cost of the Retired Teachers’ Health and Medical Benefits plan in the amount of $13,835,778.


Section E.515.1 - changes the annual contribution to the Retired Teachers’ Health and Medical Benefits Fund beginning July 1, 2021 and annually thereafter and requires the annual contribution to be the sum of the following, each made by separate appropriation:


(1) The amount determined by the State Treasurer to be necessary to pay all retiree health and medical benefits, including prescription drug benefits, on a pay- go basis for the fiscal year; plus


(2) The amount determined in the most recent actuarial valuation to be the “normal cost” for the same fiscal year, appropriated from the Education Fund.


The normal cost of Retired Teachers’ Health and Medical Benefits is not currently funded by the Education Fund. The normal contribution to the Vermont Teachers’ Retirement Fund is currently funded by the Education Fund.

Section E.515.3 of H.439 as proposed by the Senate requires the Treasurer to submit a report to the General Assembly on or before January 15, 2022 on moving normal costs and other charges to local school budgets. It requires the Treasurer to report on the following:

(1) The feasibility of moving the normal costs expenses from the Education Fund to local education agencies.

(2) Assessing federal grants for the normal costs of these benefits in a manner currently charged for teacher pensions whose funding is provided from federal grants or through federal reimbursement.

(3) Reimbursement for employer health care benefits through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.


Second,

  • Section B.1106 provides a $500,000 appropriation of FY22 one-time general funds to the Department of Health to Support polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) testing in schools; and

  • Section E.709.1 provides a $4.5 million appropriation to the environmental contingency fund, the Department of Environmental Conservation, in consultation with the Department of Health and the Agency of Education to complete air indoor quality testing for PCBs in public schools and approved and recognized independent schools.

There is no appropriation for the abatement of PCBs.


Third,

  • Sec. C.112 of H.439 provides for Afterschool and Summer Programs in fiscal year 2021 and carried forward, through an appropriation of $4 million from federal funds for Elementary and Secondary Emergency School Relief (ESSER) provided in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The Agency of Education would use these funds to provide grants to afterschool and summer programs.

House Ways and Means spent a lot of time last week reviewing and discussing S.13, an act relating to the implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report. On Friday, the committee reviewed S.13 draft 2.1. This version of the bill creates an eight-member legislative task force: two members from each of the following committees: Senate Committee on Finance, Senate Committee on Education, House Committee on Ways and Means, and House Committee on Education. Members from the House Committees will be appointed by the Speaker of the House and may not all be from the same party; members from the Senate Committees will be appointed by the Committee on Committees and also may not all be from the same party. The task force will select co-chairs from among its members - one from the House and another from the Senate. The Agency of Education will not be represented on the task force and will instead provide technical assistance and other support; the Joint Fiscal Office will provide administrative support; and the Office of Legislative Counsel will provide legal advice and drafting support. The task force may retain a consultant to assist with modeling education finance scenarios 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 first meeting of the task force will be on June 1, 2021, which is earlier than in previous drafts of the bill, and the written report must be submitted to the General Assembly by December 15, 2021 to provide legislators with enough time to read and understand the report before the session begins. Other notable changes include an expansion of the number of public meetings from one to two or more, and a requirement that the task force allow time for public comment at each of its meetings. On Tuesday, committee members will review a new draft of the bill, which will incorporate additional changes discussed on Friday and on Tuesday.


S.16, act relating to the creation of the Task Force on School Exclusionary Discipline Reform, passed in the House in concurrence with a proposal of amendment, which was messaged to the Senate on May 7th. The House amendment has the “Task Force on Equitable and Inclusive School Environments” making recommendations to end suspensions and expulsions for all but the most serious student behavior and to compile data regarding school discipline in Vermont public and approved independent schools in order to inform strategic planning, guide statewide and local decision making and resource allocation, and measure the effectiveness of statewide and local policies and practices. The appointing authorities to the 16-member task force would seek racial diversity in membership and would include representation by:

  • the Secretary of Education;

  • the Commissioner of Mental Health;

  • the Vermont School Boards Association;

  • the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators;

  • the Vermont Principals’ Association;

  • the Vermont-National Education Association;

  • the Vermont Superintendents Association,

  • Legal Aid Disability Law Project;

  • Vermont Family Network;

  • Building Effective Strategies for Teaching Students Project at the University of Vermont

  • Vermont Restorative Collaborative;

  • one teacher (appointed by the VTNEA)

  • one member of a therapeutic school (appointed by the Vermont Independent Schools Association);

  • one school counselor (appointed by the Vermont School Counselor Association); and

  • two high school students (appointed by the Vermont Principals’ Association in consultation with UP for Learning).

The task force would define the most serious behaviors that should remain eligible for suspension or expulsion, make recommendations more uniform in-school services for any students who would otherwise face exclusionary discipline, and prohibit expulsion for children under the age of eight, unless the student poses an imminent threat of harm or danger to others in the school. The task force would also review and make recommendations on school professional development, identify best practices (by minimizing law enforcement contacts, being trauma informed, and maximizing relational and restorative actions). 16 VSA § 1162 would be amended to prohibit the suspension and expulsion of students under the age of eight unless the student presents an imminent threat of harm or danger to others in the school. The Secretary of Education would call the first meeting of the task force by August 1, 2021 and the task force would cease to exist on April 15, 2022. S.16 is scheduled for committee vote in the Senate Education this week.


The House passed S.115 in concurrence with a proposal of amendment on May 6th. The House proposal of amendment is on the Senate’s May 11th Notice Calendar and proposes to:

  • Adjust the appropriations for the Working Group on the Status of Libraries in Vermont and for the Vermont Ethnic and Social Equity Standards Advisory Working Group;

  • Add public school librarians to the working group;

  • Add additional members to the wellness advisory council (school counselor and social worker);

  • Includes Vermont School Boards Association in the development of a model wellness program policy;

  • Add additional members to the VT Ethnic and Social Equity Standards Advisory Group (students) and provides additional time for this working group;

  • Provide $50K to the AOE, which can be used if the ethnic and social standards advisory group needs additional expertise;

  • Provide for menstrual products in schools on the basis of age versus grade (ages 8 and older);

  • Provide a 6 month pause of the implementation of shared school district financial data management system (eFinance Plus) while requiring frequent status reporting by AOE

  • Require proposals from the Agency of Education and from the State Board of Education on how the roles and responsibilities of each should be restructured.

This bill would take effect upon passage, except that the provision of menstrual products (Sec. 11) would take effect for school year 2022-2023 and thereafter. The Senate Education Committee has scheduled testimony in the coming week from representatives of the AOE, State Board of Education, and VASBO.


H. 426 passed out of the Senate on Thursday with an amendment from the Senate Education Committee and Senator Pearson, which, among other things, establishes the Renewable and Efficiency Heating Systems Grant Program. The Senate’s proposal of amendment also requires school districts to test for radon. On Friday, the House Education Committee heard testimony from David Englander, Senior Policy and Legal Advisor for the VT Department of Health, who stated that radon testing should be done by certified specialists and that testing and retesting can be a lengthy process. The bill does not include an appropriation to cover the cost of radon testing or remediation. Whether ESSER funds could be used to address radon remains a question. The House Education Committee has scheduled a number of witnesses to address H.426 in the coming week.


H.106, draft 8.1, the Community Schools Act, passed out of the Senate Education Committee on May 7th and is heading to Senate Appropriations. The committee added language to the bill to address universal meals and to support local farmers by including language that establishes a goal of at least 20 percent of all foods purchased by supervisory unions and supervisory districts being locally produced foods by the year 2023. Beginning with the 2021–22 school year and thereafter, supervisory unions would be eligible for local foods incentive grant funds appropriated to the Agency of Education. School boards would have the discretion to define what foods are included within the definition of “locally produced foods.” No later than December 31, 2021 school districts would be required to report to the Agency of Education an estimate of the percentage of the cost of all foods which were locally produced foods during the one-year period. Funding for one full-time staff person would be appropriated to the AOE to oversee this program.


The Senate Education Committee also added language to H.106 that would create the “Task Force on Universal School Lunch,” which would make recommendations on how, not later than the 2026–2027 school year, to achieve the goal of providing no-cost universal school lunch for all public school students. The task force would be composed of the Secretary of Education (or designee), the Secretary of Human Services (or designee), and the Secretary of Agriculture (or designee). The task force would commence no later than October 15, 2021, would collaborate with Hunger Free Vermont, the School Nutrition Association of Vermont, the Vermont Superintendents Association, the Vermont School Boards Association, the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators, the Vermont Principals’ Association, and the Vermont-National Education Association, and would issue a report by January 15, 2022.


S.100, relating to universal school breakfast and a task force addressing universal school lunch, was taken up in the House Education Committee last week and is scheduled for testimony in the coming week.


S.114 as passed by the Senate and the House proposes to continue the ongoing work to improve literacy for all students in the State, while recognizing that achieving this goal will require a multiyear and multidimensional effort requiring continued focus by the General Assembly, the Administration, and school leaders. Further, the bill provides technical support to supervisory unions to carry out activities to address learning loss and improve literacy outcomes. The bill calls on the Agency of Education to provide optional professional learning modules for teachers in the methods of teaching literacy and to assist supervisory unions in implementing evidence-based systems-wide literacy approaches. The bill would require the AOE to provide support to school districts in the use of federal funds to improve literacy outcomes, and to recommend policies, procedures, and other methods to ensure that improvements in literacy outcomes are sustained. Further, the bill creates a 16-member Literacy Advisory Council, which would advise the AOE, State Board of Education, and the General Assembly on how to improve and sustain literacy outcomes and calls on the Agency of Education to review teacher preparation programs as well as licensing and re-licensing criteria as this pertains to literacy. Lastly, S.114 provides an extension of the Census-based Funding Advisory Group, through June, 2023. This bill has been delivered to the Governor and will take effect upon passage.


The Senate passed H.449 in concurrence of a proposal of amendment and the bill will now go back to the House, which will either concur with the Senate’s proposal or appoint a conference committee. The Senate’s proposal of amendment creates three different groups, each with specific membership and duties:

  1. Vermont Pension Investment Commission (VPIC) - 9 members representing the VT State Employees’ Retirement System, the VT State Teachers’ Retirement System, the VT Municipal Employees’ Retirement System, two members who are independent financial experts, the State Treasurer, a Chair who has expertise in financial, investment, leadership, and governance and who is appointed by the other 8 members, a member representing a municipal employer appointed by the VT League of Cities and Towns and one member representing a school employer appointed by the VT School Boards Association. VPIC will be responsible for the investment of assets of the retirement systems, striving to maximize return on investments, and holding the power to set actuarial assumption rates. The Commission would also be required to keep records of all proceedings and formulate policies and procedures in order to carry out its functions.

  2. Pension benefits, design, and funding task force - Through Jun 30, 2022, members would be tasked with reviewing and reporting on the retirement and retiree health benefit plans for the VT State Employees’ and VT Teachers’ Retirement Systems. Composition of the 12-member task force is two members of the House of Representatives (not from the same party), two members from the Senate (not from the same party), the Secretary of Administration, the State Treasurer, three members appointed by the President of VTNEA, two members appointed by the President of VT State Employees Association and one member of the VT Troopers’ Association. The task force is charged with making recommendations about benefit provisions and funding sources as well as demographic and workforce trends and sustainability of the program. The task force would receive assistance from the Joint Fiscal Office and the Office of Legislative Counsel.

  3. Joint Legislative Pension Oversight Committee - Appointed each biennial session, this legislative committee would consist of three members of the House of Representatives (not from the same party) and three members of the Senate (not from the same party). The Committee would evaluate and make recommendations on public policy relation to the provision of retirement benefits to the State’s public sector workforce, statutory changes regarding the provision, design and administration of the retirement benefits and systems, public policy relating to health benefits, and the annual appropriation to fund the State’s retirement obligations. The Joint Legislative Pension Oversight Committee would receive assistance from the Joint Fiscal Office, the Office of Legislative Operations, and the Office of Legislative Counsel.


The Senate Finance Committee recommended a proposal of amendment to H.436, an act relating to miscellaneous changes to Vermont’s tax law, to reflect provisions found in H.152 (the yield bill) as passed by the House. Mark Perreault from JFO provided an Education Fund Outlook on May 7th, showing the proposal from the Senate Finance Committee’s (SFC), which differs from H.152 as passed by the House as follows:



Three provisions are also included in the Senate proposal of amendment of H.436:

  1. Excludes spending on eligible school construction projects from the determination of “excess spending” if the project has received preliminary approval from the Agency of Education;

  2. Provides that no school district’s equalized pupil count shall be less than 96.5% of the actual number of equalized pupils in the school district in the previous year; and

  3. Continues small school grants for school districts that received a grant in FY2020.


This is the last legislative blog of the session. The General Assembly is aiming to adjourn around May 22 while they are also preparing for a possible veto session in June. Legislators may then return in October if a federal infrastructure bill is passed. We will provide an end-of-session legislative report after the final language of all passed bills is available, which could be a few weeks after the conclusion of the session.


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