Formed as a response to Act 60 in the late 1990s, the Stowe Education Fund has pumped millions of dollars into the town’s public schools.
Twenty years later, another state education law has made its future uncertain.
The law forced a merger of the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school districts, and Vickie Alekson, the organization’s president, said “it is our understanding that Stowe Education Fund won’t be able to continue” in its current role, based on the new district’s governing documents.
Last year, the State Board of Education shocked Stowe residents when it voted to force a merger of the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school districts, as part of its statewide education plan mandated by Act 46. That’s the law that required small and rural districts to consider merging into larger districts.
Stowe and Elmore-Morristown considered a merger, and decided against it. But the State Board of Education ordered them to merge, and lawsuits and efforts in the Legislature failed to block or delay the merger, which takes effect at the end of this month.
“I think we were, frankly, shocked, in large part because the secretary (of education) had already seemed to be OK” with letting Stowe and Elmore-Morristown remain separate, said Lisa Senecal, one of the Education Fund’s directors, during a conference call with Alekson and two other directors — Sharon McDonald and Robin Cannon.
Since Stowe Education Fund’s mission for the past two decades has been to provide financial support for Stowe school kids, can its mission still be carried out in mergerland?
Just the whisper of Act 46 had an effect on the group’s ability to raise money.
“It’s definitely been a much more challenging fundraising environment over the past two years because everything was so uncertain,” Alekson said.
Senecal said that, “coinciding with the whole Act 46 process,” the group had been talking about stepping up its fundraising to help finance building improvements at Stowe’s schools.
“But it didn’t make any sense for us to make any big changes,” she said. “We didn’t want to spend money on anything that would have disappeared” in a merger.
The organization was founded as a nonprofit organization in March 1998 as the Stowe Schools Foundation for Educational Advancement. That’s still its official name, although most don’t bother with the cumbersome moniker — the foundation does, however, own the punny trade name “BeStowed,” according to the Vermont Secretary of State’s office.
The group started operating in a much more modest fashion a decade ago; Alekson said the group adjusted its mission in 2011 when it became an all-volunteer organization. Since then, the fund has raised $231,700 from the community, all of going to bolster Stowe’s schools.
The funds were spread out over 10 different areas:
• Technology investments: $41,700.
• Auditorium upgrades: $29,000.
• Library and literacy materials: $27,700.
• Classroom resources: $25,600.
• Math teacher leader: $25,000.
• Greenhouse and garden: $22,500.
• School climate/student leadership: $19,900.
• Summer and enrichment camps: $18,000.
• Alternative seating resources: $11,800.
• Faculty resources: $10,500.
The fund has provided these extra things outside the budget, and has used input from school officials to determine where the gaps are that the budget can’t cover.
“We can be more responsive and nimble, because the school budget is decided so far in advance,” Senecal said. “If we need to make a change within the year we can do it very quickly.”
The Stowe Education Fund, since 2011, has contributed in more targeted ways, aiming to fill gaps that the budget can’t fill.
Before that, however, it stuffed gaping holes with millions of dollars.
In the late 1990s, Stowe was known as one of the state’s “Gold Towns,” the wealthy burgs in the crosshairs of the Vermont Supreme Court mandate behind Act 60, officially known as the Equal Educational Opportunity Act.
A 1997 Supreme Court decision ruled that local property taxes, which were funding public schools, varied so widely from one town to the next that the system was unconstitutional. School financing became a state responsibility, and the state government had to come up with a system to pay the bills.
Stowe, which had a huge property-tax base, could no longer pump millions into its own schools. The statewide school property tax spread that money all across Vermont.
Nancy Jeffries-Dwyer was in on the ground floor, as the fund’s executive director for its first 14 years. She said she and other like-minded, school-minded residents gathered at the home of Burton Snowboards co-founder Donna Carpenter in 1997, “when Act 60 was rearing its ugly head.”
“We were very concerned about the implications for our town and how it would rip apart our schools,” Jeffries-Dwyer said.
Out of that group’s brainstorming, two groups were formed. One was a political group that would pressure the Legislature for changes in Act 60, the law that set up the statewide school property tax.
The other was the Stowe Schools Foundation for Educational Advancement, or the Stowe Education Fund.
And what a fund it was. Terry Dwyer, Jeffries-Dwyer’s husband, said it raised as much as $3 million or $4 million in some of its early years. Carpenter’s foundation chipped in a million the first year, as did the Freeman Foundation.
In fact, the Freeman Foundation gave $19 million over two years to 57 towns, according to a 1999 article in Mother Jones by Waterbury resident David Goodman. Fund chairman Houghton Freeman wrote about Act 60 in the Wall Street Journal, saying it was “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
The goal was to bridge the suddenly huge gap between what the school board determined what was necessary to run the schools and what the state was willing to allocate to Stowe.
“It was a great time,” Jeffries-Dwyer said.
The state eventually realized how much money the Stowe Education Fund was raising and closed a loophole in state law, making it all but impossible for outside parties to pad school budgets.
Towns were still welcome to levy additional taxes over what the state allowed, but of every dollar of additional funds, 70 cents went into a statewide “sharing pool,” which critics dubbed the “shark pool.”
Terry Dwyer, who was on the Stowe School Board at the time, said last week, “It was really, almost, extortion.”
There’s an oft-repeated phrase, “local control,” in Vermont public education, and it’s something that critics of both Act 60 and Act 46 have been adamant about maintaining. At least after Act 60, Stowe was able to keep its school board.
Other than having to show up once more in December to sign off on the annual audit, the Stowe School Board is no longer, having held its last meeting June 6. There were cookies.
Said Jeffries-Dwyer, “One of the greatest reasons we felt we needed to do that (form the Stowe Education Fund) was to maintain local control, and I have no idea what is happening next.”