VISA update: Session ends with approval of universal school meals, PCB mitigation, school branding

Editor’s note: This is the May 14, 2022, update by the Vermont Independent Schools Association.

Biennial Legislative Session Ends

The legislative session adjourned Thursday, ending the two-year legislative biennium. Legislative action was generally helpful to independent school interests as outlined below. The chief disappointment was the failure of the House Education Committee to take up S.219, a bill to clarify and set statewide standards for public tuition payments to religious schools.

The widely anticipated U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Carson v. Makin case concerning the balance between religious freedom and church-state separation will assure that the issues addressed in S.219 — tuition payments and dual enrollment in the religious school context — will be front and center in the next legislative session.

Universal School Meals Bill Passes

A bill to provide free school meals to publicly-funded students in the coming school year has passed. The Universal School Meals Act provides $29 million from the Education Fund surplus for this one-year school meals pilot program.

The bill says “An approved independent school located in Vermont may operate the same school lunch and the same school breakfast program made available to students who qualify for those meals under the National Child Nutrition Act and the National School Lunch Act, each as amended, to each student attending on public tuition every school day at no charge.”

Approved independent schools are eligible to participate if they operate “a food program that makes available a school lunch, as provided in the National School Lunch Act as amended, and a school breakfast, as provided in the National Child Nutrition Act as amended, to each attending student who qualifies for those meals under these Acts every school day.”

PCB Testing & Mitigation Spending Bill Adopted

The legislature has added funding in support of a program adopted last year to test all Vermont schools for PCB contamination. PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), now know to be carcinogenic, were used in building materials prior to 1980.

Last year’s bill appropriated $4.5 million for air sampling, but did not allocate any funds to mitigation. This year’s bill designates $22 million to be kept in the Education Fund awaiting a plan from the Agencies of Heath, Education and Natural Resources for mitigation of any contamination discovered in the testing process.

PCB testing has begun under the management of the State Dept. of Environmental Conservation. In S.283, the General Assembly extended the deadline by which all schools must be tested from 2024 to 2025.

Miscellaneous Ed Bill Adds New Requirements

Also in S.283, legislators added several more new requirements of importance to independent schools, including:

  • A prohibition of suspensions or expulsions of students under age 8 enrolled in a public school, approved independent school, or prequalified private prekindergarten, provided however, a school may suspend or expel a student if the student poses an imminent threat of harm or danger to others in the school.
  • The Building Bright Futures Council (established in 33 V.S.A. § 4602) is directed to “define suspension, expulsion, and exclusionary practices in early childhood education settings and to establish best practices for supporting children who face such measures.” The Council must issue a written report by January 15, 2023, “detailing its work and findings and making recommendations for legislative action.”
  • An extension of the school facilities radon testing completion deadline to June 30, 2026.
  • Directed the Agency of Education to issue three written reports with recommendations for legislative action:
    • A report “on the impact of standardizing the entrance age threshold for public school kindergarten attendance” together with recommendations for legislative action, if any, no later than December 15, 2022;
    • A report “with a proposed statewide uniform school calendar,” due no later than January 15, 2023;
    • A report with recommendations for a statewide remote learning policy that incorporates remote learning into the requirements for student attendance, school days, and cumulative instructional hours.

Childcare Employee Retention Grants Extended

In H.510, legislators appropriated an additional $1 million to be used for childcare employee retention grants. Approximately 5,500 childcare workers in Vermont could benefit from these bonuses according to a Joint Fiscal Office estimate. The grant program is overseen by the Dept. for Children & Families.

School Branding Bill S.139 Adopted

In S.139 the General Assembly has directed the Secretary of Education to develop a model policy which “shall prohibit school branding that directly or indirectly references or stereotypes the likeness, features, symbols, traditions, or other characteristics that are specific to either: (A) the race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity of any person or group of persons; or (B) any person, group of persons, or organization associated with the repression of others.”

The model policy is to be a minimum standard which must be met by all Vermont schools, including recognized and approved independent schools. Schools may adopt more stringent standards if they wish. Failure to adopt a local policy will be understood to mean automatic adoption of the AOE model policy.

The statute says whatever policy is adopted “shall provide a process for an individual to file a complaint that an element of school branding is in violation of the policy.” Complaints shall be determined first by the school and, if the individual is unsatisfied with the decision, may be appealed to the Secretary of Education.

The AOE model policy is to be completed no later than August 1 of this year and school adoption and implementation of a branding policy shall be completed no later than January 1, 2023.

Dual Enrollment Eligibility for Religious School Students Rejected

A Senate-endorsed effort to allow religious school students to participate in the dual enrollment program died in a budget bill conference committee meeting last week after House Education Committee members argued the House did not have enough time in the current legislative session to consider what Rep. Jay Hooper (D-Randolph) described as “significant other problems.”

Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) said the Senate was concerned that withholding eligibility from religious school students was contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court holding in Espinoza v. Montana, and likely would be overturned in cases now pending in U.S. District Court in Burlington.

The “other problems” Rep. Hooper mentioned relate to the reasons the House Education Committee chair gave for not taking up S.219, the religious school tuitioning bill which passed earlier in the session.

Two Major Business Community-Favored Bills Passed

The Vermont Chamber of Commerce reports two major business-community priorities were passed at the end of the session: the omnibus housing bill and the economic and workforce development bill.

The omnibus housing bill was a priority for the business community, legislators, and Governor Scott. Getting to this outcome included difficult negotiations and impassioned speeches to ensure that the meaningful housing provisions could pass without garnering a veto from the Governor, who continually stated his opposition to a change in Act 250 governance included in the House-passed version. That provision is included in S.234 which also passed, but it will undoubtedly be vetoed.

Included in the final omnibus housing bill is $15 million for the Missing Middle Homeownership Development program which addresses workforce needs by increasing the supply of housing for middle income earners. There are also funds for manufactured homes, bylaw modernization grants, and an expansion of the priority housing project program. Another housing bill also passed this session and will provide funding to increase the supply of rental units through grants to property owners.

In addition to the housing bill, the House and Senate passed a $99.5 million economic and workforce development bill, sending it to the Governor’s desk. The Conference Committee put in long hours and late nights to reach a compromise, including a $19 million VEDA forgivable loan program with a cap of $350,000 or six months of operating expenses, and an eligibility requirement based on at least a 22.5 percent reduction of adjusted net operating income during 2020 and 2021 combined.

The bill also includes $9 million in creative economy grants and a total of $10 million for the Community Recovery and Revitalization Grant Program, which expands eligibility for nonprofits and municipalities doing infrastructure improvements and community development activities. However, the bill only includes a little over $3 million for relocation incentives and nothing for recruitment marketing, which was a priority for the Governor.

A minimum wage hike was deleted from the bill, but an unemployment insurance supplemental benefit provision remained and became even more onerous and expensive for the Department of Labor to administer. The maximum weekly benefit would increase by $60 beginning July1, then sunset in three years or when $8 million is drawn down from the UI Trust Fund. At that point, the benefit would increase by $25 until an additional $92 million is drawn down from the UI Trust Fund. The bill optimis-tically contains plans for the Department to meet this goal ahead of schedule, which the Department repeatedly testified is not feasible.

The Chamber complains “the bill contains absolutely no plan to recruit workers to Vermont, a glaring omission amid a severe labor shortage. Due to this exclusion the Governor’s veto threat lingers as legislators adjourn.”

Image courtesy of Public domain