Vermont legislative conferees agree on school overhaul bill

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — An effort to reduce Vermont's school costs and improve educational programming by consolidating school districts has apparently gotten a green light.

House and Senate members of a conference committee agreed Thursday to the outline of a bill that creates incentives for neighboring school districts to merge — sooner rather than later — and gives the state Board of Education new authority to get tough on laggards.

The bill deals with property taxes, which help fund local schools, and offers tax reductions as incentives for districts that merge this year. Local voters approve school budgets, which include tax rates, and would also have to approve any school mergers.

Under the bill, minimum property tax rates for the coming year would be 99 cents per $100 of value for residential property; $1.53 plus a half cent per $100 for vacation homes, apartment houses and businesses. But for school districts that have successful merger votes before next year, the tax rates would be 10 cents lower than the minimums. After this year, the reduction would get smaller for those districts that decide to merge.

Also under the bill, districts that refuse to draft merger plans and that fail to show they provide a quality, cost-effective education could be required to do so by the state Board of Education, said Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

"The state Board of Education presently has the authority to close schools or take them over and run them," she said. "This bill gives (the board) the authority to merge schools."

Agreement on the education bill came during a busy day at the Statehouse as lawmakers worked into the evening toward a goal of completing their 2015 session by Saturday.

In other business:

— A bill to regulate more tightly the rent-to-own industry and containing other consumer-protection measures was given final House passage after members agreed with a Senate decision to remove language relating to Internet dating sites. The Senate would not go along with a House plan to grant immunity from lawsuits to companies that run the sites when someone uses them as a vehicle for fraud. Lawmakers agreed to address the issue in separate legislation next year.

— The Senate concurred with House changes to a bill that would allow "same-day registration," in which voters can register on the day of an election.

— A controversy erupted when the Senate Natural Resources Committee barred reporters from a meeting it was holding in the office of Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell. Secretary of State Jim Condos said lawmakers should follow the open-meetings law, citing a provision of the state Constitution about public officials being accountable to the people. Michael O'Grady, a lawyer with the Legislative Council legal staff, issued a memo pointing to another provision of the Constitution saying the doors of the General Assembly should be open "except only when the welfare of the State may require them to be shut."

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