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Revolt Of The Gentry

In Vermont a new law meant to equalize public school funding has set off a ferocious class war

By Tamala M. Edwards/Montpelier

TIME magazine

(TIME, June 15) -- Vermont sometimes feels as if it is one sprawling town. It is a place where families go back eight generations and the Governor answers his own phone after 5 in the afternoon. But it is also a place where local self-determination is a birthright. The state flag is emblazoned with the motto "Freedom and Unity"--but today those values are doing battle with each other. Class warfare has broken out.

Rich and poor Vermont towns are fighting each other over a new state law called Act 60, which is aimed at correcting the disparities in school spending between wealthy towns and less fortunate ones. At issue are the most basic values parents teach children: Be fair. Share. Play nice. According to Vermont's supreme court, obeying the rules of the sandbox meant replacing the state's old school-funding system, in which local property taxes generally paid for local education, because doing things that way had led to terrific schools in affluent communities (especially those graced with ski slopes or resort lakes) and threadbare facilities for the have-nots. Under Act 60, the well off now face higher property taxes and slashed school budgets, while working-class communities can expect tax cuts and budget increases. Starting this year, property taxes will be collected by Montpelier and sent back to the towns in the form of block grants of $5,000 per student. In a state where local control is taken for granted, such a change would be galling enough. But the law has made it nearly impossible for well-off towns to maintain their school quality by raising money locally. The 41 "gold" towns have been told they must share all the property-tax revenue they raise (no matter how much) with 211 "receiver" towns--giving away in many places as much as 60 to 70 cents of every dollar.

Some of the towns have rebelled. Rather than raise taxes while cutting school budgets, eliminating programs and laying off teachers, three of them--Dover, Plymouth and Searsburg--are refusing to send their taxes to Montpelier. At least three other towns are talking about joining the rebellion. In Manchester, volunteer firefighters are trying to persuade locals and other gold towns to join the revolt. And on both sides of the battle, people are worried that the fabric of Vermont is fraying for good. Says anti-Act 60 lobbyist Bob Stannard: "This is civil war."

The problem of equitable school funding isn't confined to Vermont. It first became an issue during the 1970s, when California and four other states, after successful suits by poor parents and school districts, were forced to hammer out new funding plans. The issue heated up again in 1989, when Kentucky's supreme court found the state's funding system unconstitutional. Since then, courts have thrown out school-financing systems in 13 other states. Some, like New Jersey, remain perpetually mired, unable to arrive at a new formula, but most have begun emphasizing the notion of "adequacy," making sure each student receives a minimum spending level but allowing towns to collect extra funds for their own use. Vermont's supreme court, however, standing on the landmark 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision, ruled that the state had to go another step toward equity by creating a statewide property tax (Kansas is the only other state to have one) and ensuring that such levies are shared.

In well-off Vermont towns like Dorset, where the property-tax rate will go up nearly 35 cents per $100 of property value, Act 60 has been met with fury and defiance. The elementary school principal quit when she was forced to let teachers go and scale back art and music classes. Last year the Inn at Willow Pond, a major corporate conference center, gave $25,000 to charity. This year, when the charities called, "we told 'em to call Montpelier--all that money went to Act 60 taxes," says owner Ron Bauer. Even angrier are affluent parents who moved to postage-stamp towns in part for the excellent schools. "This is Marxism," howls novelist John Irving, whose son is a Dorset kindergartner. "It's leveling everything by decimating what works... It's that vindictive 'We've suffered, and now we're going to take money from your kid and watch you squirm.'"

But people in the receiving towns see things differently. They point to the years of excessive taxes, shuttered businesses and struggling schools they endured because their property-tax bases weren't robust enough to support decent schools. "Was it fair for [rich towns] to have an advantage when somebody else's fundamental rights--in this case, a public education--were being denied?" asks Allen Gilbert, a parent from working-class Worcester. Spreading the burden through the state, says Randolph school-board member Laura Soares, whose town can now afford to build a new elementary school after a 30-year wait, "is the moral thing to do." And, the receivers contend, the wealthy are not only selfish but arrogant. "They're not used to losing debates," says state senator Cheryl Rivers, an architect of the law.

On a drizzling night in Manchester, the two sides collide at a debate over Act 60. Faced with the elderly couple who say they will have to dip into retirement savings to pay taxes and the brothers who say they will have to close the family inn, state senator Peter Shumlin, an Act 60 advocate, takes the high-minded approach. "It's your responsibility as Vermonters to educate all our kids," he says. But later he growls at his opponent, "I don't blame you for not liking Act 60. You had a great deal, and it's coming to an end." That outburst leaves the air almost neon with anger. "It makes me feel like someone is going to get shot," says anti-Act 60 activist Mary Barrosse.

The crisis is forcing Vermonters to take another look at their state. Is this a place where, as activist Stannard says, "you work hard and do the best with what you've got," or is it a place where, as Rivers says, "Vermonters take care of Vermonters"? It will be years before the people of Vermont sort out whether the benefits of Act 60 were worth all the turmoil. But John Irving, for one, is not waiting around to find out. He's starting up his own private school--and stealing the principal away from the private academy where state senator Shumlin sends his kids. "My response is as brutally upper class as I can make it," says Irving. "I'm not putting my child in an underfunded public school system." If he can't get his new school up and running, says Irving, "I'm moving out of here." And he's avoiding the local press "because I don't want to make my child a target of trailer-park envy." Irving, by the way, is a liberal Democrat. But in Vermont, it seems, the whole world is being turned upside down.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: June 15, 1998

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Why The Government's Machines Won't Make It
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Revolt Of The Gentry
Calvin Trillin: Just the Owner, Not the Boss
The Notebook: The Wise Words of Ginsburg...Not Anymore

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