Supreme Court sides with state on Whitingham school suit | Local News

MONTPELIER — Upholding a civil court ruling, the Vermont Supreme Court said plaintiffs in a case against the state failed to show that inequities in education funding and the property tax system were caused by existing laws.

The plaintiffs included Sadie Boyd, who graduated from Twin Valley Middle High School in Whitingham last year; Madeleine Klein, resident and owner in Whitingham; and the town of Whitingham. In 2017, they filed a lawsuit against the state in the Civil Division of Windham Superior Court, arguing that Vermont’s education funding and property tax system is unfair and unconstitutional.

“They claimed the system was unconstitutional because it deprived plaintiff Boyd of equal educational opportunity, required plaintiff Klein to contribute disproportionately to education funding, and required the city to collect an unconstitutional tax,” said the Supreme Court’s ruling on Friday.

The plaintiffs argued that the state should not have been granted summary judgment because there is a dispute over whether Whitingham students are truly being denied fair educational opportunities. They said they provided enough evidence to show that the state property tax system forces Klein to contribute disproportionately to education funding because she pays more than similarly situated taxpayers in many places. other communities and that the city is harmed by the system because Twin Valley was financially penalized for exceeding a spending threshold based on the state average.

The Supreme Court agreed with the lower court, saying the plaintiffs had not presented enough evidence for a jury to conclude that the statewide system deprived Boyd of “substantially equal educational opportunity.” and to demonstrate that the system “arbitrarily discriminates” against Klein.

“Because plaintiffs have failed to meet their burden of proving that the current system of education taxation is unconstitutional, the city’s claims that it is obligated to collect an unconstitutional tax and is deprived of revenue by this tax necessarily fail as well,” the Supreme Court said. decision.

State attorneys argued that the plaintiffs framed the case as a challenge to the education funding system, but are genuinely upset with the property tax system, according to the ruling. The Supreme Court said it did not need to resolve the issue because the plaintiffs had not provided enough evidence to show that “the system of funding and taxing education nationwide the state is to blame for the number of courses and sports offered at Twin Valley or relative to its students. poor performance in tests and attendance.

“The laws are presumed to be constitutional and reasonable,” the Supreme Court decision states. “Viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the limited evidence they presented showed that between 2016 and 2019, Twin Valley offered about half as many in-person classes as the largest high school in the state. . Its students had access to many other in-person and online courses at nearby institutions. Its students performed slightly below the state average on tests and attendance. At least one student, plaintiff Boyd, would have preferred more in-person class options and more extracurricular sports.

The Supreme Court said the plaintiffs provided “very little evidence” to support the claim that Klein was being unfairly taxed due to current systems.

“They relied primarily on data showing that Whitingham had one of the highest property tax rates in the state in 2018 due to its high per-student spending,” the ruling said. “However, the fact that a city has a high tax rate does not necessarily mean that a particular resident pays more tax, in dollar terms, than similarly situated residents in other cities. The amount of school tax paid depends on the value of the property, the income level of the owner, the amount of local expenditure per pupil and other factors.

The Supreme Court said it was left to speculate on Klein’s tax burden relative to others without analyzing property tax rates, education spending, property values ​​and income levels in other cities.

“And given the complexity of the education property tax system,” the court’s decision states, “we conclude that it would not be reasonable for a jury to simply infer from this evidence that plaintiff Klein is treated different from others like her.”

On the town’s claims, the Supreme Court said the plaintiffs argued the tax system harmed Whitingham by depriving it of revenue and forcing it to collect “unlawful tax” from its residents. The Supreme Court agreed with the lower court saying that the plaintiffs had failed to show that the property tax laws were unconstitutional and had no right to take the case to court because they lacked sufficient evidence.

Attorney James Valente of Costello, Valente & Gentry in Brattleboro said his clients and his team were disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision.

“The current disparity in spending per student between the wealthiest and poorest schools is proportionally as bad now as it was before Bill 60,” Valente told the reformer, referring to the 1997 Vermont law. aimed at achieving greater equity in the education financing system. “The only thing that has changed is the identity of rich and poor cities. We hope the Legislative Assembly will consider the issues we have raised and address them through policy changes designed to address this more fundamental issue.

Asked about the next steps, Valente said: “That remains to be determined. We will soon meet with the select committee.

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