New Vermont special education law could affect local taxpayers

BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – Local taxpayers within the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union may have to absorb a potential estimated loss of $1 million in state-funded aid, as a new special education law may go into effect.

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Photo by Element 5 Digital, Unsplash

The proposed bill, Act 173, would set new factors in how the state will determine special education reimbursement rates to school districts. These factors include overall student population and poverty. WNSU district towns affected by the new law would include Rockingham, Westminster, Athens, and Grafton.

In a recent WNESU board meeting via Zoom, Superintendent Christopher Pratt and Special Education Director Andy Hass discussed the possible tax implications that Act 173 would have on the school budget. “I look at Act 173 as sort of a two-pronged approach, and the idea is to improve student learning and outcomes, but Vermont has always had this obsession with identifying special education students,” Hass said.

“One of the big parts of this approach is the reimbursement piece, as school districts get reimbursed up to 60% of their total special educations costs. Therefore, there was an incentive to have [special education] students identified for the purpose of getting reimbursed. This was part of the nexus in moving in the direction of finding a new funding mechanism, based on the idea of getting school districts to first try and approach students with learning disabilities and address those issues prior to [actually] being referred to special education.

“That was the driver behind the change; however, the other piece of it was to go after and actually reduce special education funding. The process has already been delayed a couple of times, but the last time I spoke with the state about it a few weeks ago, they said they are going to start addressing the proposed change in February.”

The state did send out what they call a “simulator” to school districts, as to plug in and manipulate numbers and look at possible outcomes based on various “student weighting” factors. The idea was to look at different weights or factors that would be assigned to different populations of students, and that fluctuation would have an impact on what funds a school district would receive from the special education block grant. The special education block grant is based on a district’s long-term daily average membership.

Superintendent Pratt reiterated that the law would change how school districts are reimbursed for the costs of special education, from receiving 60% of the total costs to simply a flat, block grant rate. Pratt stated that the change could cost taxpayers an estimated $1 million towards the budget, depending on what weighing factors are officially put in place.

A number of legislators throughout the state have already introduced a new bill in an attempt to mitigate the effects Act 173, and the Vermont House Committee on Education, which considers and advocates matters relating to the amount of funds needed to satisfy the educational needs of Vermonters, have also begun taking a closer look at the proposed law.

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