This is the Feb. 5, 2022, update from the Vermont Independent Schools Association.
House Ed Grapples with Conflicting Act 173 Delay Recommendations
The special education reforms required in Act 173 have already been delayed one year due to the pandemic. Has the pandemic so hampered progress toward implementation of the special education reforms in the public school that the current deadlines should be extended by another year, or is the need for reform increasingly imperative, necessitating no further delay? That’s the question with which the House Education Committee was grappling this week.
The committee heard mixed recommendations from the AOE and other public education administrators. The potential impact of changes to the equalized pupil weighting factors now also being considered in the current legislative session are a substantial complicating factor.
Whatever happens with the public school side of the Act 173 reforms likely will also impact the Act 173 requirement that all independent schools accepting public funds must enroll students with disabilities and support provision of special education services. That implementation date was previously extended to July 1, 2023. If the other Act 173 provisions are extended the Education Committee will have to con-sider the same for the independent school requirement.
Changing the Act 46 Rules Stirs Fears of Independent School Growth
When an individual district withdraws from a larger Act 46-created union, as has happened recently with Lincoln and Ripton and in progress in Stowe and Starksboro, the outcome often is a non-operating district with school choice and independent schools among the choice options. The House Education Committee heard those school choice and independent school fears spoken aloud this week by Sue Ceglowski of the Vermont School Boards Association and Jeff Francis of the Vermont Superintendents Association. The committee is considering a bill with recommendations from the Secretary of State’s office to “clarify” administration of school district elections and the withdrawal process.
Ceglowski spoke about increasing the five percent threshold to begin the withdrawal process and sugested that use of district funds to support a withdrawal study committee creates a conflict of interest. She said her organization is concerned that an increase in non-operating districts will increase the number of students attending independent schools, and particularly attending religious schools. She said public funds must not be used for religious schools. Francis agreed with Ceglowski’s criticisms of the district withdrawal requirements and process. He added his organization’s concern that having school choice “eroding support for public schools.”
$150,000 Recommended for Independent School Vaccine Incentives
The Senate Appropriations committee voted out the FY2022 Budget Adjustment Act this week. Among the changes from the House-passed bill was a $150,000 allocation to the Agency of Education for the vaccine incentive program for recognized and approved independent schools. These schools are not eligible to receive ESSER funds. The bill subsequently was approved by the full Senate. It now goes to a conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions.
Mascot Ban Proposal Introduced to Senate Ed Committee
A bill to ban use of racial or ethnic groups as school team mascots was introduced to the Senate Education Committee. S.139 says “a public school shall not have or adopt a name, symbol, or image that depicts or refers to a racial or ethnic group, individual, custom, or tradition and that is used as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead, or team name of the school.”
“It is insulting and demeaning for one group to use another group as a mascot,” testified the bill’s chief sponsor Senator Dick McCormack (D-Windsor). “It is an exercise in one group’s power over another. It is demeaning to the designated group.”
A similar bill, H.641, has been referred to the House Education Committee.
AOE Begins PCB Testing Program Rollout
Indoor air tests will begin this spring for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in all Vermont schools built or renovated before 1980. In addition, the Vermont Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has authority under the testing law to require schools to make fixes that will lower exposure to PCBs, if levels are found at or above the school action level.
DEC has hired consultants to do the indoor air testing. A list of schools required to be tested and a testing schedule soon will be posted on an AOE web page.
PCBs are human-made chemicals widely used before 1980 in building materials and electrical equipment, typically in caulk and fluorescent light ballasts. Schools renovated or built before 1980 are more likely to have PCBs.
Remote Worker Relocation Grant Program Now Open
The New Remote Worker Grant builds upon Vermont’s previous worker relocation incentive programs to attract new residents to the state. This grant offers up to $7,500 in reimbursements for eligible expenses to remote workers who become full-time residents on or after February 1 and continue to work for an out-of-state employer. The application portal is now live and accepting applications. Find answers to the most frequently asked questions and detailed eligibility criteria here.
Governor Scott Announces New $50 Million Homeowner Assistance Program
The Homeowner Assistance Program (HAP), which will help Vermont homeowners facing pandemic hardships, is now accepting applications. The program, funded by $50 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), will provide grants of up to $30,000 per household towards overdue mortgage payments, utility bills, property taxes, and property association charges.
100 Cell Tower Proposal Draws Fire in Committee
An administration proposal to build 100 large cell towers in underserved areas throughout the state struck a nerve last week in the House Energy & Technology Committee. Commissioner June Tierney and Clay Purvis of the Public Service Dept. presented two proposals from the Governor’s budget: one on cell towers and one on broadband. But the administration’s cell tower proposal, called the Critical Communications Infrastructure Program, occupied all of the allotted time.
Purvis pointed to alarming statistics showing the need for cell service throughout the state, especially for public safety purposes, and also as an equity issue in our rural, sparsely populated and mountainous state. Lower income and other underserved Vermonters choose cell phones as a singular technology because they are both phone and internet provider and are used for telehealth and education in addition to being a lifeline. Seventy percent of 911 calls are from cell phones and 67 percent of Vermont phone numbers are registered to cell phones. Vermont has the highest-in-the-nation percentage of households with landline only, at twelve percent. The Department estimates that 40 percent of Vermonters cannot use a cell phone in their home, an even bigger number than the fixed broadband problem.
The Critical Communications Infrastructure Program envisions a $50 million public subsidy for large towers built by telecom companies to fill market gaps. The providers say large towers are too costly to build without public subsidy. Representative Laura Sibilia (I-Dover) reacted strongly to the proposal saying that national carriers AT&T and Verizon did not deserve to get public funding. They’ve spent hundreds of millions on lobbying for dubious causes, she said.
Rep. Avram Patt (D-Worcester) pointed to a contentious large cell tower proposal in Worcester. He has been deluged by constituents with complaints about that process. He said he was “shocked” at how poorly it was handled with the community. Other committee members tried to understand how the current lack of coverage connects with the large amount of money given for the FirstNet project.
Commissioner Tierney said the Department is sympathetic to those concerns, but she said the issue of building big towers is always going to be controversial. The need for cell service throughout the state is too important. “We cannot get stuck that way,” she said.