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Acting Up Over Act 60 Education

Fifth grader Hannah McMeekin is very proud of her new school.

"I like the library a lot," she said. "The playground is a lot better and there used to be two classrooms in a separate building."

It's a big improvement over the two turn-of-the-century buildings that used to be Randolph Elementary, reports CBS News Correspondent John Roberts, but it took 25 years and a controversial new law to make it possible, according to principal Stephen Metcalf.

"We had one of the highest tax rates in the county and they just could not find it in their pocketbooks to fund the building itself," he said.

Randolph, a poor town, benefited from Act 60, a new law to equalize rich and poor school districts. The act sets a state-wide property tax rate, then guarantees $5300 for every student — regardless of location. If towns want to spend more money on their own schools — and most do — they can, by raising local property taxes. But rich towns must put some of what they collect into a 'sharing pool' on which poor towns can draw.

"The previous system was unfair because it treated children differently based only on the accident of the location of their residence," said Metcalf. "It was basically unfair and it needed to be fixed."

But just a few miles away from Randolph, in Vermont's affluent ski resort town of Stowe, residents think the law is unfair.

"The state calls it a sharing pool," said Donna Carpenter of the Stowe Education Fund. "We call it a shark pool."

Carpenter is a mother of three and owns a small business here. She's fighting Act 60 — she says it's devastating to Stowe - because for every state tax dollar spent on its own schools, Stowe must now send almost three dollars to help other towns.

"We'd have to raise a total of $16 million for a $6 million budget and it's so punitive and so extreme that either the schools would be drastically cut or it would put people out of business here," she told CBS News.

So Carpenter and others started a private fundraising drive, outside the tax system. Every dollar they collect stays in the local school system.

"The choice is to fund it through the Stowe Education Fund where $1 raised is $1 spent at the school or pay the tax where we keep 30 cents on the dollar," she said.

Supporters of Act 60 say Vermont has an obligation to support all of the state's school children equally.

"It's the state that people come to see," said Randolph resident Charlie McMeekin. "Stowe is a tourist destination and a wonderful one. At the same time that they're driving right by Randolph and they're admiring those mountain views they're admiring those fields, and those don't generate the tax revenues that a ski area does."

Even some Stowe residents believe as a prosperous town, Stowe should pay more.

"Stowe does not stand alone and our interests don't stop at the town's borders," said Alison Bell, an attorney with children in the Stowe school system.

She adde that Vermonters need to pull together.

"It is incumbent on people of good will to if they believe quality education is important to stand up and say out loud I'm willing to pay for that."

Those not willing to pay have made enough noise that Vermont's legislature is taking a second look at Act 60 — and may recommend changes.

"Education shouldn't be a zero sum game," said Donna Carpenter. "It shouldn't be that we get things taken away for them to gain stuff."

But for Hannah McMeekin, it's not about taking things away, it's all about achieving balance.

"I think sharing money makes Vermont a special place 'cause it's kind of like we're one big town instead of separate towns," the fifth grader said.

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