Status of Schools
In the first two weeks of the session, the Education Committees have been hearing testimony regarding the state of Vermont’s schools throughout the week. To read testimony from a variety of witnesses, please see the links below:
As a reminder, you can access information remotely via these links:
Town Meeting Day 2022 and Temporary Open Meeting Law Procedures
S.172: a bill authorizing alternative procedures for 2022 annual municipal meetings in response to COVID-19, will allow the legislative bodies of municipalities to vote to: (1) use Australian ballot for town meeting in 2022, and (2) move Town Meeting to a date later in the year. These emergency provisions were in place in 2021 but expired. The bill also allows for a pre-town meeting informational meeting to be held by electronic means without designating a physical location. In that case, the municipality must use technology that permits the attendance of the public through electronic or other means, allows the public to access the hearing by telephone, records the meeting, and posts information about how the public may access the meeting electronically and include that information in the agenda. The bill moved quickly through both chambers and was signed by the Governor on January 14, 2022.
S.222: a bill that implements several temporary provisions of the Open Meeting Law, was passed by both bodies last week. This bill authorizes a meeting of a public body to be held fully remotely without needing to designate a physical meeting location and without requiring staff to be physically present at a location.
If a public body chooses to meet remotely, it must use technology that permits public attendance through electronic or other means and allows public access by telephone. The public body must also post information that enables the public to directly access and participate in the meeting and include it in the meeting’s agenda.
Municipal legislative bodies and school boards that meet remotely under these provisions must record their meetings, unless unusual circumstances make it impossible to do so. In the event of a staffing shortage due to COVID-19, a public body may extend the time limit for the posting of minutes to not more than 10 days from the date of the meeting. Public bodies may post meeting agendas or notices of a special meeting in two designated electronic locations in lieu of the physical designated public places in the municipality, or in a combination of a designated electronic location and a designated public place. Notices and agendas must be posted in or near the municipal clerk’s office and must be provided to the newspapers of general circulation for the municipality.
The temporary provisions of S.222 will expire on January 15, 2023. The Governor is expected to sign the bill this week.
S.223 passed the Senate on Wednesday and was delivered to the Governor on Friday, January 14, 2022. This bill will temporarily suspend the signature requirement for candidates wishing to place their names on the Town Meeting ballot, and also authorize the legislative body of a school district to vote to not commingle the ballots of member municipalities for the 2022 annual district meeting.
Several committees took up pupil weighting over the past week, hearing a summary of the Final Report from the Task Force on the Implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors. On Friday, January 14, 2022, the Senate Education Committee was focused on English Learners, hearing from AOE Division Director, Federal and Education Support Programs, Anne Bordonaro, whose testimony concluded with the following:
“From a programmatic perspective, the Agency of Education supports the recommendations of the Pupil Weighting Task Force Report regarding funding EL students through a categorical aid approach and enhancing AOE staffing capacity to support LEAs in effectively and equitably educating the state’s growing, and increasingly diverse and geographically widespread, EL student population.”
The Senate Committee on Finance also heard from AOE Finance Manager, Brad James, who provided a presentation on Student Weights Overview.
Vermont State Teachers’ Retirement System (Pensions)
On Monday, January 11, the special legislative task force responsible for developing a plan to pay down ballooning debts of the Vermont teachers’ and state employees’ pensions systems unanimously endorsed a package of recommendations. The recommendations for the Vermont State Teachers’ Retirement System (VSTRS) include:
modify the cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) calculation and increase employee contributions;
appropriate one-time funds to address the underfunded liability in the pension fund;
allocate FY 2021 General Fund year-end surplus to the VSTRS pension fund and reallocate the General Fund year-end surplus to the pension fund in future years;
beginning in FY 2024, and annually thereafter, fund an additional payment to the Actuarial Determined Employer Contribution (ADEC) using monies saved from a reduction on the required annual unfunded liability amortization payment until the plan reaches a 90 percent funded status; and
prefund other postemployment benefits by making a one-time $13.3 million Education Fund appropriation into the Retired Teachers’ Health and Medical Benefits Fund and creating a prefunding schedule that funds the normal cost from the Education Fund.
To learn more, please read the Executive Summary of the plan; Vermont State Teachers’ Retirement System recommendations begin on page 40. Legislators must now turn this plan into a bill that will need the approval of both the House and the Senate before making its way to the Governor for final approval. Senate Government Operations will lead on this bill and will take up pensions every Friday afternoon until they pass a bill; if interested, please follow these meetings on the Senate Government Operations livestream. The Senate Finance Committee’s agenda indicates that they will hear testimony from the Joint Fiscal Office on the impact of pensions on the Education Fund in the coming week.
Please Note: The Senate Government Operations Committee will hold a public hearing on the Final Report and Recommendations of the Pension Task Force on Tuesday, January 18, 2022 at 5:30pm-7:30pm via Zoom. The public is invited to register to speak at the hearing and/or submit written testimony. The Committee is encouraging the public to review the Task Force’s Final Report before testifying. Anyone interested in testifying must sign up in advance of the hearing through the following online form: https://legislature.vermont.gov/links/pension-benefits-public-hearing
Public Funds for Tuition
After hearing a presentation from legislative counsel on January 7, 2022, members of the Senate Education Committee heard a bill walk-through of S. 219, a bill relating to the use of public funds for tuition and the dual enrollment program. This bill proposes to: (1) ensure compliance with the U.S. and Vermont Constitutions by clarifying that a school district is authorized to pay public tuition to a qualified school or program, regardless of its religious status or affiliation, if the school or program has adequate safeguards to ensure that none of the tuition for which payment is requested has been or will be used to support religious instruction or worship or the propagation of religious views; (2) prohibit a school district from paying public tuition to a qualified school or program, regardless of religious status or affiliation, unless the school or program complies with federal and State antidiscrimination laws applicable to public schools; and (3) clarify under what circumstances a school district shall make dual enrollment available to students who attend a school with a religious mission. S.219 appears on the Senate Education Committee’s agenda in the coming week.
There are two bills introduced that address Holocaust education. S.189 and H.457 would require the Agency of Education to report to the Senate and House Committees on Education on the status of Holocaust education in public schools and its recommendations to ensure that Holocaust education is included in the educational programs provided to students in public schools. Both bills would take effect upon passage.
Career & Technical Education (CTE)
The Agency of Education presented two requests to the General Assembly this week:
The House Education Committee heard testimony from AOE Federal Emergency Funds Program Manager, Jill Briggs Campbell, who presented an amendment to Act 9 of 2021 to correct an error that inadvertently made CTE centers ineligible to receive ARP Indoor Air Quality funding. This request would specifically amend Section 15(a) of Act 9 to include regional CTE districts as defined in 16 VSA 1571 and regional CTE centers as defined in 16 VSA 1522.
AOE Deputy Secretary Heather Bouchey presented a request for budget adjustment to stabilize the CTE system as a result of COVID-19. The Senate Appropriations Committee discussion regarding this request can be accessed here.
S.211 is a bill that proposes to create the Vermont Teaching Careers Study Committee to study and make recommendations on how to increase interest in teaching in Vermont elementary and secondary schools. The Senate Education Committee held a discussion on this bill, which currently states the following membership:
(1) the Executive Director of the Vermont Superintendents Association or designee;
(2) the Executive Director of the Vermont School Boards Association or designee;
(3) the Executive Director of the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators or designee;
(4) the Executive Director of the Vermont Principals’ Association or designee;
(5) the Executive Director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association or designee; (6) the Executive Director of the Vermont-National Education Association or designee; (7) the Secretary of Education or designee;
(8) a representative appointed by the Vermont Standards Board for Professional Educators; and
(9) the Commissioner of Mental Health or designee.
The Study Committee would be charged with developing recommendations to the General Assembly regarding an action plan and proposed legislation on how to increase interest in teaching in Vermont elementary and secondary schools. S.211 appears on the Senate Education Committee agenda in the coming week.
Miscellaneous COVID Relief
The House Education Committee is working on a committee bill, dr req 22-0356 – draft 2.1, that proposes to count any day that a public school operates remotely toward the 175 student attendance day requirement. The committee bill also affects implementation of Act 173 of 2018 by (1) delaying the shift in special education funding from a reimbursement model to a census-based model, and (2) delaying the requirement that certain approved independent schools enroll students on an individual education program.
The Committee discussed the remote learning sections of the bill on Friday, January 14, including the written testimony of Secretary of Education Dan French, which stated that a change to current statutes is not necessary and that the existing process has worked well for the previous two school years in the pandemic context. Secretary French explained that he has existing authority to evaluate waiver requests from school districts whose calendars will fall short of the statutory requirements for any reason outside the control of the school district, including staff shortages, student absences, snow days, etc. He further indicated that he intends to grant waivers generously for the current school year, given that schools are experiencing closures resulting from staff shortages and the impacts of the Omicron variant are expected to affect schools for at least the next several weeks.
Governor’s Budget Address Governor Phil Scott will deliver his budget address to a joint assembly of the legislature at 1:00 pm on Tuesday, January 18. To view the joint assembly proceedings, go to the Senate’s YouTube channel: https://legislature.vermont.gov/senate/streaming/joint-assembly