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Rory Thibault – CVTSE Press Conference 9/30/2021

Statement of Rory ThibaultCabot School District

Good morning, I am Rory Thibault, Chair of the Cabot School Board. Our board voted unanimously on Monday evening to join the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity. Three of our board members provided testimony to the Task Force earlier this month, and we are appreciative of our legislators’ work on this topic and consideration of our position.

With that said, I want to share Cabot’s experience and the consequences of our flawed education finance formula.

Like many small districts, Cabot did not have an easy experience navigating the Act 46 process. Because we are a small school, many were quick to conclude we were inefficient and that our high per pupil spending was a consequence of size.

This conclusion glossed over the reality we knew then – validated the UVM/Rutgers study – that student and community needs vary, with factors like poverty, the number of students requiring special services, and the number of students who require English language instruction impacting the services a school must provide to meet basic needs.

Beyond what visitors see when they come to Cabot, notably our namesake creamery and pastoral views, there is a sobering reality: like many rural communities our poverty rate for those under 18 is well above the State average, and many children have experienced adversity or trauma in their early years. More than 50% of our student body is eligible for free or reduced lunch, and more than 23% of our students require special services. In 2019, despite making up just 10% of our Supervisory Union’s student population, Cabot accounted for 17% of the Supervisory Union’s special education expenses.

The Cabot School District prides itself on an excellent reputation of serving children with additional
needs, but doing so has becoming increasingly difficult. Under the existing weighting of pupils, our
spending is benchmarked against districts that do not face these additional expenses or challenges.
Despite drastically restructuring our school and right sizing our faculty and staff, the excess spending threshold, an integral part of the existing system, has punished our school, created tumult in the budget process, and, ultimately, forced us to sacrifice opportunities for students. The consequences of this unfair system are real, inequitable, and unjust.

The UVM/Rutgers study provides us with a clear and empirical basis for setting pupil weights. I urge the Task force to adopt the weighting recommendations as this is the only means to truly address the inequity districts as different in size as Cabot and Winooski face. Categorical grants are apt to suffer the same pitfalls as small school grants – they breed uncertainty, are subject to changes year to year based on politics, not evidence, and – critically – they send the message that districts that struggle under the existing formula need to be “subsidized,” implying poor governance or wasteful policy choices.

We are asking for predictability and consistency in education finance;
We are asking that education finance be guided by equity and the common benefits clause;
We are asking for fairness going forward, not redress for past inequity or lost opportunities;
We are asking for local boards and communities to be trusted to be good stewards of school finance;

And finally, I am asking that we place our Vermont values first in this conversation: since the Brigham decision in 1997 we have recognized the importance of bringing equitable educational opportunities to all students. The Task Force and legislature have the opportunity to align our education finance system with these values.