By MADELINE HUGHES
Kathryn Webb has been a member of the Vermont House of Representatives for a decade.
Webb served on the Fish, Wildlife, Water Resources Committee for her first eight years serving in the Legislature. The committee has since been renamed the Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee. She also held several leadership positions, including Assistant Majority Leader between 2014 and 2016.
In 2017, Webb was pleased to be appointed to the Committee on Education as a ranking member because she wanted to work directly on policy. Now that the new biennium has begun, she is taking charge of the committee as chair.
Shelburne News sat down with Webb to talk about her new role and what her priorities are for the 2019 session.
One of Webb’s biggest challenges this upcoming session will be balancing a range of education needs with the pressing issue of state-mandated school consolidation. The Champlain Valley School District merged in 2017 as one of the voluntary mergers across the state under Act 6. In the voluntary phase, 146 towns merged 157 independent school districts into 39 new, consolidated entities.
In November, the Agency of Education put more pressure on districts that have not yet merged to do so, sparking several court cases currently in progress. Since Shelburne News spoke to Webb, five bills have been introduced to address the impacts Act 46.
Webb’s answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Shelburne News: A bill was introduced to form a working group on ethnic and social equity studies standards for public schools. A similar bill has circulated for years. Is the committee going to address this topic this session?
Webb: Absolutely. The bill was introduced to committee on Jan. 10, and we intend to take it up. In terms of curriculum, the Legislature does not write curriculum, that’s left to the locals. But this bill brings together a group to inform the state about those issues that are perhaps out of date, standards that need to be addressed. We are looking for a culture change – it’s time for a culture change.
Shelburne News: School safety has been a topic of conversation around the state. Does the Education Committee have any plans to address safety concerns coming into this session?
Webb: After three days I can’t say we have taken that up yet. I do know our district has taken available funds and we do have a security officer now.
Shelburne News: Since Act 46 was passed, the state has been merging school districts. Now some districts that have not merged are being forced to do so. Some people in those towns are seeking legal remedies to not merging. What is the Legislature’s role in those mergers?
Webb: It’s the policy of the Legislature not to interfere with pending litigation. In addition, there are rules in the House that preclude us from discussing and debating anything that’s before the courts. So we are right now trying to get clarity on what that means, because it’s a significant shutting down of conversation if we can’t discuss or debate.
We are looking at what we can do to help the struggling districts to merge that does not interfere with the underlying law. I expect a number of bills to come forward on this topic.
Shelburne News: Speaking of Act 46, there was a memo by Education Secretary Dan French and other state officials about the entire state possibly being merged as one district. What are your thoughts on that?
Webb: When I met with Secretary French, he said it was really an envisioning exercise. It’s not anything that is happening right away, but they are trying to envision the future of public education, and that is one of the things they have looked at. It doesn’t look like it is coming forward in any form this year.
At the same time, we have to remember we are struggling to get two districts merged. Getting the whole state merged, particularly with an agency that is really understaffed? We aren’t ready for that.
Shelburne News: What are your concerns about education in the state?
Webb: There is concern about the capacity at the Agency of Education to do the work that our school districts are going to need them to be able to do. School boards are waiting for information on small school grants and per-pupil spending, and my understanding is that department is two months behind.
There is also concern about what the governor means when he talks “cradle-to-career.” The concern is that it means use of the education fund, which most taxpayers understand as covering PreK-12.
Shelburne News: Funding public colleges in Vermont has been a struggle. What is the state doing about that?
Webb: The state contribution to the Vermont public colleges and universities is the lowest in New England per capita. In addition, our state colleges continue to see declining enrollment and challenges for students to make it all the way to graduation.
In response, Lyndon and Johnson State Colleges successfully merged to become Northern Vermont University. We anticipate requests from the state colleges for additional support, increasing current state spending, around 17 percent, to a level more commensurate with other states.
If so, where will these funds come from? Both the colleges and child care advocates have their eye on the education fund; however, these funds are dedicated to educate our PreK-12 students through hard-fought local budgeting. Expanding beyond preK-12 is a problem.
The House Education Committee will be hearing from the state colleges, as well as the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. which helps our post-secondary bound Vermonters pay for their education. We will also review the VSAC report on college completion data for the high school class of 2012.
In addition, we will follow up on a workforce development bill and its relation to post-secondary education through degree or credentialing programs.
Shelburne News: Education finance has been a big question across the state for years, especially under Gov. Phil Scott. What changes have happened, and how is your committee planning for the future?
Webb: Last year, we made some significant changes in the sources of funds to fund education. There used to be a complex transfer of money from the General Fund. We changed that last year. Now 100 percent of sales tax goes towards education, so I think people can feel comfortable when they are paying Vermont’s sales taxes that it is going to our children. So, that’s one thing we changed.
Last year, education funding was a source of conflict with the governor. The primary argument between the Legislature and governor was the use of one-time funds. The money was primarily from the federal tax changes, and that’s only going to happen one time, so you can’t build that in as if it is going to happen every year. The Legislature chose to put a significant amount of the one-time funds into paying down the underfunded portions for teachers’ retirements.
The governor wanted instead to give property tax payers a reduction, so some of us all may feel a small change in our property taxes. In reality, what we lost was the opportunity to free up money and pay down debt in the future. We are basically forwarding that debt to the next generation, and that to me is very troubling.