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A.C.L.U. in Vermont Challenges State System of Paying for Education

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Students, taxpayers, and school districts in Vermont have waited 30 years for the state to finance its schools equitably, yet will do so no longer, officials from the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont said last week.

The group filed a lawsuit in a Lamoille County court earlier this month that claims the state's school-finance system violates articles of the state and U.S. constitutions.

The suit was filed on behalf of two students, nine taxpayers, and two districts that are "representative of all those who are harmed by the present situation," said Leslie Williams, the executive director of the Vermont A.C.L.U.

The state's system of education funding relies heavily on local property taxes, which vary widely between districts.

The student plaintiffs allege that because they live in areas with relatively low property values, their school districts are unable to raise the money to provide them with an adequate education. They say they are denied opportunities offered to children in wealthier districts.

The taxpayer plaintiffs, also from districts with low property values, contend that they are taxed at an unjustly high rate and must contribute more than their fair share to education.

And the school districts, Brandon and Worcester, echo the complaints of the students and property owners, charging that they must impose high taxes but still are unable to provide a high-quality education.

A Needed Incentive

The state has until next week to respond to the claims.

Stephanie Carter, Gov. Howard Dean's press secretary, said last week that neither the Governor nor his legal staff had yet reviewed the lawsuit.

"But certainly property-tax reform is the Governor's number-one legislative priority this year," she said.

The House passed a bill this month that would increase the amount of state aid to education and allow the state's 50 most property-wealthy towns to share their revenue with needier districts.

Rep. John Freidin, who sponsored the bill, said it "would clearly satisfy the concerns expressed in the lawsuit."

But officials from the A.C.L.U. said that if the past is any indication, the bill will either get killed or will never be fully paid for.

Last year, a comprehensive property-tax-reform bill passed in the House but died in the Senate.

"A year ago we were waiting to see what the legislature did," Ms. Williams said.

"It appears to us there is not the political will," she added. "Without a certain incentive, they're not going to fix the problem."

Robert A. Gensberg, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, added that even if the legislature passes a solid reform plan, the real challenge is in getting lawmakers to appropriate enough money for it.

"I'm not sure we can get at that," he said. But the lawsuit might be an effective catalyst, he suggested.

"I have a lot of faith in our legislature," Mr. Gensberg said. "I really do believe that if they are told that there's a constitutional problem, they will try and do the right thing."

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