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System of Regional Property Taxes Debated in Vt.

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After weeks of back-and-forth debate, the finance committee of the Vermont Senate was moving late last week toward a vote on a bill that would create a system of regional property taxes to reduce funding disparities between rich and poor school districts.

The legislation, earlier approved in a different form by the chamber's education panel, stops well short of the major school-finance changes approved by the House in January. The House measure would end locally based property-tax funding for the schools, replacing it with local income taxes and a statewide tax on nonresidential and vacation property. (See Education Week, Jan. 26, 1994.)

Under the finance committee's plan, the state's 60 supervisory unions--which comprise anywhere from one to 13 towns and as groups share one high school and one superintendent--would each have a uniform property-tax rate.

The state would increase education funding by some $50 million to insure that districts with low levels of property wealth had adequate per-pupil funding.

Statewide Contract Dropped

While expressing some criticisms of the regional system, Sen. Jeb Spaulding, the chairman of the Senate education committee, said the approach would be a step toward resolving the state's endemic school-finance problem.

"I feel that the regional approach ... does not go as far in improving equity as I would like to see,'' he said, "but it does make significant improvements.''

Mr. Spaulding, a Democrat, acknowledged that the new system would not help equalize school funding in supervisory unions with only one district. But, he said, those districts could gain from the increase in state funds available under the plan.

Senator Spaulding noted that the Democrat-controlled House's call for a statewide property tax had run up against strong opposition in the Republican-majority Senate. But he said he was "still pretty optimistic that we'll probably have that when we're done.''

The Senate education committee also killed a controversial House provision establishing a statewide teachers' contract, which had drawn strong opposition from the Vermont affiliate of the National Education Association and other education groups.

The committee added several education-related elements to the bill, which are retained in the finance committee's version and which Mr. Spaulding expects will survive on the floor.

The provisions include development of standards for school, student, and educator performance and assessment; creation of a charter-school program; addition of a public-school-choice option; and initiation of a collaboration between the state education and human-service agencies.

Some observers remained doubtful last week, however, that lawmakers would be able to agree on a reform bill this term.

Stymied by debate over the finance-reform bill and other measures, the legislature already has had to extend its 1994 session by a month.

'Unhealthy Environment'

In addition, observers described lawmakers on both sides of the issue as reluctant to compromise.

"There are some members of the Senate that would oppose any type of tax reform,'' said Ellen David Friedman, an organizer for the state N.E.A. affiliate.

"There have been serious lines in the sand drawn by the Senate Republican caucus,'' Ms. Friedman said.

"The main holdup,'' Mr. Spaulding said, "is some reluctance by some legislators to use revenues other than the property tax to finance education.''

The House authors of the original reform proposal, on the other hand, also seem unwilling to compromise, said Ms. Friedman, adding that it was an "unhealthy environment'' for the bill.

"There are some very, very zealous House members who are not in a compromising mood,'' she said.

In addition, Gov. Howard Dean has not been particularly supportive of the reform plan, Ms. Friedman suggested. The Democratic Governor has indicated that he does not favor any additional state funds for education.

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