Boyd v. State, 2021-177

Docket Nº2021-177
Citation2022 VT 12
Case DateMarch 18, 2022
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

2022 VT 12

Sadie Boyd, Madeline Klein & Town of Whitingham
v.

State of Vermont

No. 2021-177

Supreme Court of Vermont

March 18, 2022


On Appeal from Superior Court, Windham Unit, Civil Division Katherine A. Hayes, J.

James A. Valente and Adam W. Waite of Costello, Valente & Gentry, P.C., Brattleboro, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Thomas J. Donovan, Jr., Attorney General, and David Boyd, Assistant Attorney General, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellee.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Eaton and Carroll, JJ., and Johnson, J. (Ret.), and Bent, Supr. J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned

CARROLL, J.

¶ 1. Plaintiffs are Sadie Boyd, a student at Twin Valley Middle High School in Whitingham, Vermont; Madeleine Klein, a resident and property owner in Whitingham; and the Town of Whitingham. In October 2017, plaintiffs filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief against defendant State of Vermont, arguing that the education funding and property taxation system set forth in 16 V.S.A. ch. 133 and 32 V.S.A. ch. 135 violated the Education Clause, the Proportional Contribution Clause, and the Common Benefits Clause of the Vermont Constitution. They claimed that the system was unconstitutional because it deprived plaintiff Boyd of an equal educational opportunity, required plaintiff Klein to contribute

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disproportionately to education funding, and compelled the Town to collect an unconstitutional tax. The civil division granted the State's motion for summary judgment, 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. We affirm.

I. Relevant Law

¶ 2. Vermont's education funding and property taxation statutes are intended "to make educational opportunity available to each student in each town on substantially equal terms, in accordance with the Vermont Constitution and the Vermont Supreme Court decision of February 5, 1997, Brigham v. State of Vermont." 16 V.S.A. § 4000(a). Chapter II, § 68 of the Vermont Constitution, known as the Education Clause, makes education "a fundamental obligation of the state." Brigham v. State (Brigham I), 166 Vt. 246, 263, 692 A.2d 384, 394 (1997) (per curiam); see Vt. Const. ch. II, § 68 (providing that "a competent number of schools ought to be maintained in each town unless the general assembly permits other provisions for the convenient instruction of youth"). In the landmark Brigham I decision, we recognized that the Education Clause and the Common Benefits Clause together guarantee Vermont students a right to equal educational opportunities, and concluded that the then-existing statewide education funding scheme violated this right. 166 Vt. at 268, 692 A.2d at 397.

¶ 3. At the time Brigham I was decided, Vermont public schools were financed by a combination of funds raised by towns and cities through local property taxes funds distributed by the State under its so-called foundation plan. The foundation plan provided money to school districts to allow them to spend an amount per pupil that would provide a minimally adequate education. Despite this assistance, wide disparities in per-pupil spending existed between rich and poor school districts. Towns with greater property wealth spent more per pupil and had lower effective tax rates than poorer towns. The State conceded in Brigham I that as a result, children

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living in property-poor school districts lacked the same educational opportunities as those living in wealthier districts.

¶ 4. We held that this system deprived Vermont students of their constitutional right to equal educational opportunities. Id. We noted that "[t]he Constitution does not, to be sure, require exact equality of funding among school districts or prohibit minor disparities attributable to unavoidable local differences." Id. at 267, 692 A.2d at 397. However, we rejected the State's argument that the foundation plan sufficiently ameliorated the funding disparities between rich and poor districts to eliminate a constitutional claim of discrimination, concluding that the system fell "well short of achieving reasonable educational equality of opportunity." Id. We went on to explain:

In so holding we emphasize that absolute equality of funding is neither a necessary nor a practical requirement to satisfy the constitutional command of equal educational opportunity. As plaintiffs readily concede, differences among school districts in terms of size, special educational needs transportation costs, and other factors will invariably create unavoidable differences in per-pupil expenditures. Equal opportunity does not necessarily require precisely equal per-capita expenditures, nor does it necessarily prohibit cities and towns from spending more on education if they choose, but it does not allow a system in which educational opportunity is necessarily a function of district wealth. Equal educational opportunity cannot be achieved when property-rich school districts may tax low and property-poor districts must tax high to achieve even minimum standards. Children who live in property-poor districts and children who live in property-rich districts should be afforded a substantially equal opportunity to have access to similar educational revenues. Thus, as other state courts have done, we hold only that to fulfill its constitutional obligation the state must ensure substantial equality of educational opportunity throughout Vermont.

Id. at 268, 692 A.2d at 397.

¶ 5. After Brigham I was decided, the Legislature made major changes to the education funding and property taxation scheme, and it has continued to make refinements in subsequent years. See, e.g., 1997, No. 60; 2003, No. 68. Under the current system, voters within each school

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district decide the district's budget for each fiscal year. See 16 V.S.A. § 428(a) (governing town school districts); id. § 511(a) (governing incorporated school districts). The budgets are then funded by the State, which collects property taxes at rates it sets to cover a portion of the cost. See id. § 4025 (establishing Education Fund, which is funded by education property tax as well as revenues from state lotteries and other taxes, and is to be used to pay school districts and supervisory unions in accordance with 16 V.S.A. § 4028); id. § 4028(a) (providing for payment of "adjusted education payment" to school districts); id. § 4001(14) (defining "adjusted education payment" as "district's education spending per equalized pupil"); 32 V.S.A. § 5402(a) (setting uniform statewide education property tax rates). Property is divided into two categories for purposes of the education tax: homestead property, meaning the principal dwelling and surrounding land owned and occupied by a resident individual as the individual's domicile; and nonhomestead property, which includes most other types of property. 32 V.S.A. § 5401(7), (10) (defining homestead and nonhomestead property); id. § 5402(a) (setting different rates for homestead and nonhomestead property).

¶ 6. The State sets homestead property tax rates using universal statewide formulas to address differences in property wealth between districts, so that voters in districts with the same spending per equalized pupil pay approximately the same homestead property tax rate without regard to whether property values in each district are relatively high or low. See id. §§ 5402, 5404-5405; Brigham I, 166 Vt. at 255, 268, 692 A.2d at 389, 397 (invalidating previous funding scheme under which per-pupil spending was highest in wealthy districts, which benefited further from low school tax rates, while towns with limited resources spent less per student and paid more in taxes). The legislative body of each municipality is required to bill property taxpayers as directed by the Commissioner of Taxes in accordance with the education tax rates. 32 V.S.A. § 5402(b).

¶ 7. Under the current system, if a school district spends more than 121% of the statewide average district education spending per equalized pupil in fiscal year 2015, increased by

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inflation through the fiscal year for which the amount is being determined, its homestead property tax rate increases twice as fast on spending above that threshold. Id. § 5401(12) (defining "excess spending"); id. § 5401(13) (explaining how education property and income tax spending adjustments are calculated). The Legislature has exempted certain items from the excess spending calculation, including approved capital construction spending and special education spending. 16 V.S.A. § 4001(6)(B).

II. Facts

¶ 8. The following facts were undisputed for purposes of summary judgment.[1] At the time this case was filed, the Twin Valley Contract School District, a joint contract district created by the Whitingham and Wilmington School Districts, operated the schools within its borders. In 2019, Twin Valley became a unified union school district and the Whitingham and Wilmington school districts ceased to exist. At all relevant times, Twin Valley operated all schools within the district and its school board proposed its budgets, which were approved or rejected by district voters. The Town of Whitingham did not operate or fund any schools.

¶ 9. In fiscal years 2016-2019, the Twin Valley district had between 400 and 500 equalized pupils. During that period, Twin Valley's education spending per equalized pupil exceeded the Vermont statewide average by nineteen to thirty percent. The district spent, on average, $3621 more per equalized pupil than the overall statewide average. During the same period, other districts similar to Twin Valley-meaning districts with 350 to 550 pupils that operated schools for all grades-spent less than the statewide average per pupil. Twin Valley spent an average of $4047 more per pupil than these similarly sized districts.

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¶ 10...

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1 practice notes
  • Gates v. Mack Molding Co., 2021-176
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • May 13, 2022
    ...reasonably infer the probable truth of her interpretation of events to the exclusion of other plausible explanations. See Boyd v. State, 2022 VT 12, ¶ 19, Vt., A.3d ("Where the moving party does not bear the burden of persuasion at trial, it may satisfy its burden of production by showing t......
1 cases
  • Gates v. Mack Molding Co., 2021-176
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • May 13, 2022
    ...reasonably infer the probable truth of her interpretation of events to the exclusion of other plausible explanations. See Boyd v. State, 2022 VT 12, ¶ 19, Vt., A.3d ("Where the moving party does not bear the burden of persuasion at trial, it may satisfy its burden of production by showing t......

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