The Vermont Supreme Court, in a decision issued on March 20, 2022, affirmed the Civil Court’s summary judgment dismissal of the State’s motion for summary judgment in Whitingham v. State, concluding that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that the alleged inequities were caused by the statutes in question or that the education property taxation system lacked a rational basis.
Vermont’s state education finance system was substantially revised after the state Supreme Court declared the prior system unconstitutional in its 1997 decision in Brigham v. State, 692 A.2d 384. Under the current system, budgets are funded by the State, which collects property taxes at rates it sets to cover a portion of the cost. If a school district spends more than an annually designated amount above the statewide average district education spending per equalized pupil in fiscal year 2015, its homestead property tax rate increases twice as fast on spending above that threshold.
The plaintiffs claimed that this provision unfairly affects small rural districts like theirs that need to spend more per capita to provide basic educational services than larger districts with economies of scale. The Court held, however, that the only evidence presented by plaintiffs in support of this argument was that their school district, which spends more per pupil than most schools in Vermont, offers fewer courses than the largest high school in the state. The fact that the district’s “relatively small high school offers fewer courses and sports may simply reflect a lack of interest or an insufficient number of students to justify offering them. The evidence connecting the alleged shortcomings of the…school to the way the State currently funds public education is simply too tenuous to support plaintiffs’ claim.”