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Vt. School-Finance Bill Dies As Session Ends on Partisan Note

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A plan to revamp the way Vermont pays for its schools died when the legislature adjourned without reaching consensus on the issue.

In the final days of the session, the school-finance bill became the subject of intense party rivalry, and observers said that, in the end, a showdown between Republicans who control the Senate and Democrats who lead the House killed the bill.

"We had an unbelievable opportunity to reduce the school-spending disparities, lower the property-tax burden, and set up a funding system that would have allowed us to move forward with reforms,'' said Sen. Jeb Spaulding, the chairman of the Senate education committee.

Instead, Vermont schools face a fourth year of stagnant funding.

A tax-reform panel had proposed that the state set a property-tax level and also become responsible for paying teachers in an effort to equalize school spending among districts.

Provisions calling for a statewide teachers' contract--vehemently opposed by teachers' unions--were dropped early in the session, but lawmakers had hoped to win consensus on the property-tax changes.

Accord Proves Elusive

The statewide tax proposal, which was supported by Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat, won approval in the House, where Speaker Ralph G. Wright had championed the issue. The Senate, meanwhile, opted for a regional property-tax-sharing bill that was favored by Republicans but won bipartisan support.

Senate Democrats said they had hoped a conference committee would find common ground, but top Senate Republicans appointed what observers called an obstructionist panel of negotiators who would not bend, leaving the issue in limbo as the session closed earlier this month.

"The demise of the bill had more to do with political muscle flexing than the substance of the issue,'' noted Senator Spaulding, a Democrat, who said he expects lawmakers to revisit the issue next year.

Beyond its finance changes, the bill would have implemented a host of school reforms, ranging from charter schools to new tests for teachers learning standards. (See Education Week, May 4, 1994.)

In the session's waning hours, the Governor attempted to revive negotiations and House lawmakers considered alternatives for a last-minute compromise, but neither effort proved fruitful.

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