Vt. universal school meals bill delayed as Senate confronts the cost, and how to pay it

Published: 3/28/2021 10:14:03 PM
Modified: 3/28/2021 10:14:00 PM

MONTPELIER — A bill to provide free breakfast and lunch to all public-school students in Vermont is delayed in the Senate, as lawmakers confront the measure’s hefty price tag.

S.100 has the strong backing of Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Windham, and anti-hunger advocates argue that the federal government’s universal meals program during the pandemic is proof of concept for a long-sought goal.

But it won’t be cheap. Legislative analysts estimate it could cost the state anywhere from $24 million to $40 million a year once fully implemented.

The proposal has run into stringent opposition from Vermont’s superintendents, principals and school boards, who say that while they’re fine with the mandate, the funding mechanism is a nonstarter. 

As written, S.100 would require local schools to pick up the tab for whatever the federal government won’t reimburse, and education officials warn that could drive up property taxes or force districts to cut existing programs.

“When the Legislature takes a progressive idea and funds it regressively, it’s not progressive. It’s good politics, but bad policy,” former Vermont education secretary Rebecca Holcombe wrote in a semi-viral Twitter thread.

“It’s a win-win for Montpelier, which gets praise for feeding kids and supporting farms, while giving over ever more of your local school budget to an unfunded mandate your board can’t touch,” said Holcombe, a Democratic candidate for governor in 2020.

Balint said she’s still committed to getting the bill across the finish line, although senators will take “more time to figure out a funding scheme that is sustainable for school boards, taxpayers and families.” 

The measure has technically missed crossover, the midsession deadline for moving bills from one chamber to another, but lawmakers have work-arounds they often use for priority legislation. It’s now scheduled to come back to the Senate floor April 1.

Aside from a small slice of federal dollars, basically all pre-K-12 spending is paid out of the state’s Education Fund. About two-thirds of the fund’s revenues come from property taxes, and the rest comes from a mix of sales taxes, meals and rooms taxes, and lottery receipts.

Lawmakers are working on compromise language that is not expected to take the expense for the program out of the Education Fund. But it would change how the fund reimburses schools for the expense, which may mollify education officials.

The school budgeting process works this way: Local voters approve a budget, and the Education Fund pays. But the state then calculates how much each school district spends per pupil, and that community’s school-tax rate is adjusted based on how high or low its per-pupil spending is. 

Instead of asking local districts to include the meal program in their general education budgets — which means it gets factored in when their all-important “per-pupil spending” is calculated — lawmakers are considering simply reimbursing the expense out of the Education Fund as categorical aid. That move is often referred to as taking money “off the top” of the Education Fund and is how the state pays for things like small schools grants.

That arrangement would mean the state is still paying for the proposal out of the same pot of money, but changing the dynamics of how the tax consequences play out on the ground. 

The Senate compromise would give local school officials more room to maneuver and not put meal programs in direct competition with school programs. And, by taking it out of the equation that determines a district’s per-pupil cost, voters would have less sticker shock at the ballot box. 

“If it’s going to come out of the Ed Fund, then it needs to come off the top, and we’re not going to fight that battle. We would fight the battle in terms of local school budgets, because that’s totally inappropriate,” said Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association.

But, while the Senate compromise will soften the financial blow in districts that would have had particularly large unreimbursed costs, it will still drive up education spending statewide. That means that while individual districts won’t face large spikes, property taxes everywhere will still feel upward pressure. And some school officials aren’t quite ready to say that’s acceptable.

“We haven’t run that question by [our] members,” said Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association. “I do have a strong reaction from them with regard to the local budget utilization.”

However the Education Fund pays, backers of the universal meals proposal argue it is well worth the money, particularly in a time of heightened food insecurity. 

And they argue that with schools flush with federal cash — albeit temporarily — and cannabis sales taxes soon expected to bolster the Education Fund, schools can ultimately absorb the cost.

“I maintain that in a few years time, it will sort of just be wrapped up in the basic operating costs and not kind of freak people out the way it is right now when we’re considering this change,” said Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Even if it makes it out of the Senate, the measure faces an uncertain future in the House. And it’s unclear how it will be received by Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican who frequently talks about the need for cost-containment in the state’s pre-K-12 system. 

Jason Maulucci, a spokesperson for the governor, said Scott supported “the concept of providing school meals to those who need the help,” but there were nevertheless “a few important considerations we need to learn more about.”

“We should avoid increasing taxes on many working Vermonters to pay for a program that could also fund meals for students whose families do not need the financial support,” he wrote in an email.

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