All Hands on Deck for Healthcare and Education Reform in 2015/2016 Legislative Biennium

Thanks to everyone who checked my name in the primary election last week. I really hope to win your support in the general election on November 4 as well. As I campaign for re-election to the House seat representing Barnard, Pomfret, Quechee and West Hartford (District Windsor 4-1), I think about the challenges and opportunities we face as communities, as a state and as a nation. The role of our government should be to find durable and fair solutions to the social, economic and environmental problems that all civilizations face. These solutions should either do the most good or the least harm, depending on how optimistic we feel at any given moment when considering the realities of our imperfect democracy. While we have our hands tied in many ways by federal laws and bureaucracy that are showing signs of age, rot and questionable judgment, we in Vermont have a system of government that is at least accessible and small enough to actually listen to and consider all different voices when they speak up. With the world and Washington so divided and conflicted, I think it makes sense to turn inward a little, talk to each other, take stock of what our resources and opportunities are and where the biggest challenges lie, and decide how to work together without over-reliance on – or interference from – counter-productive external forces.

Clearly, education, healthcare and the economy are on everyone’s minds these days, and they are all fundamentally connected. Vermont consistently has stood atop the national rankings in terms of educational outcomes and general health statistics, but we also spend more money in both areas compared with other states; in some cases, a lot more. Are we getting our money’s worth? How do we place a value on these public services? If the cost of living in Vermont keeps rising at current rates will it matter that we have some of the best schools and healthiest living in the country if some people can’t afford to live or move here? There are certainly flaws in how we collect and spend money on education and healthcare, and right now we are at one of the most critical times in our state’s history as we attempt to reformulate and rebuild these systems in order to make them better, more transparent and cost-effective.

My top priority as a legislator (if I earn the privilege of representing our district for another two years) and the top priority of state government, will be to take decisive but thoughtful action on these two most consequential issues of the day – education and healthcare. Finding better solutions to the problems we face in these areas will result in systemic economic benefits as well.

While we have one of the best education systems in the country (and the world when Vermont is factored into international statistics as a separate country), we are paying more to educate fewer students while threatening to close small schools and raising property taxes to the point where many, even those who pay by income, are finding it increasingly difficult to stay afloat. Some of the factors playing into this out-of-balance equation include rising healthcare and special education costs (which in turn are driven by a variety of factors), low student to teacher ratios, a declining statewide population, federal and state mandates, energy costs, the housing market and inflation. But some towns that can easily raise enough money to fund their own schools are seeing more of their dollars leave town to fund other schools over which they have no budgetary authority, while their own schools have to cut programs, staffing and bus routes. We should be able to find a way to adhere to the mandates of the Brigham decision without making it impossible for small community schools to thrive.

Some form of administrative consolidation is inevitable and will probably be necessary, but it should take into account the vital role that successful smaller schools play in sustaining healthy local communities and providing quality education. We must not let go of what little local control we still have over our schools. Voters in any given town should retain final say in any consolidation proposals that may be brought forward, even if they decide to pay an arm and a leg to keep their schools open. While the Consolidation Bill passed the House by a vote of 76-60, I voted NO and expressed my concerns to fellow legislators and leadership. Any future proposed consolidation legislation must take into account the sometimes unquantifiable benefits of having a small school as the central institution in a small community. I attended the Barnard Central School (now the Barnard Academy) when it had only two classrooms, and I can’t imagine the town without it.

I have also been active in the discussion about modifying the cost-sharing mechanism that currently fills the Education Fund. While I voted in favor of replacing Acts 60 & 68 with a simpler, fairer and more sustainable formula, changing the formula alone won’t fix the problem. The fundamental problems lie in the multiple budget items that continue to rise at rates that outpace inflation and standards of living, and there is little tweaking of the current formula that would reduce total statewide spending. Even though there is an emphasis on property valuation tax to raise these funds, most Vermont residents pay based on income, and there is growing consideration for moving to a primarily income-based system. This, however, would have its own unique complexities that would need to be thoroughly vetted before being put into place. I will continue to work with other independent-minded legislators to find viable alternative solutions to the education funding conundrum.

Economically, while America and the world continue to stagger through a globalized recession, there are some positive indicators in Vermont worth noting: the number of small businesses and start-ups per capita, a comparatively low unemployment rate and rising numbers of jobs and businesses in the agriculture and forest products sectors. Vermont is recovering from the recession faster than the other New England states and is experiencing one of the highest college-age in-migration rates in the country. But we also have a reputation for not being business friendly enough and placing too much emphasis on environmental concerns. Some property owners I’ve talked to feel that they are spending too much for too little, while others feel like they’re getting their money’s worth in the overall value of living in Vermont. There will always be tension in trying to achieve the appropriate balance between economic development and environmental conservation.

I’ll continue to share my thoughts on these issues – including agriculture, telecom, energy and the environment – in greater detail in future entries here in the Standard, on my website and at your doorsteps over the next few weeks. Please contact me anytime with questions, concerns, suggestions or if you need assistance. You can reach me at 234-9125. Enjoy the turning of the leaves!

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