Last week I voted to approve the school budget and I would like to take this opportunity to explain why this was the right decision for Manchester's taxpayers and children. Let me first correct some misinformation that was disseminated last week concerning the budget. Some people are operating under the assumption that we approved a 17 cent increase. This is false. Before I attempt to clarify the complexities of our property tax system, make sure you are sitting down in preparation for the thrilling explanation to follow. The tax increase can be estimated in one of two ways: by using the "Actual Tax Rate" or the "Equalized Tax Rate" (the Actual Rate is just the Equalized Rate adjusted by dividing by the Common Level of Appraisal, or CLA if you want to impress no one at a cocktail party). The budget the school board passed increases the Actual Tax Rate, by 10.5 cents, or the Equalized Tax Rate increases by 11.9 cents. While much of this increase is the result of threshold penalties, it should be duly noted, however, that if the "spending caps" of Act 46 are repealed, which is very possible judging by the increasing criticism of them in the state legislature, the "Actual Property Tax Rate" is estimated to only increase by three cents.
Okay. Are you still with me? If you can't fall asleep tonight, just read the paragraph above.
To be sure, we were faced with a dilemma at our budget meeting last week: either cut programming or approve a budget that would raise taxes. The budget that was presented to the school board last week, and which was ultimately approved at 10:30 pm Thursday night, minimizes programmatic cuts but makes substantial cuts in other areas. I applaud Superintendent Dan French, Principal Tom Quinn, and the MEMS faculty for creating a budget that does not eviscerate many of the school's exemplary programs.
I am of the school of thought that if we cut programming, then we will have families leave the school, or move out of town, and we will be faced with a greater decline in enrollment and thus stuck in a vicious cycle: make cuts, families leave, declining enrollment, make more cuts. I also understand that the status quo will not suffice. We need to do something fundamentally different and Act 46 provides us with the opportunity to merge with other school districts and engage in a meaningful dialogue to find regional solutions that eliminate redundancies of services while enhancing the quality of education. Last November, the school board voted to enter into a study committee with surrounding districts. In the next year this committee will be exploring merger solutions. Beyond altering our governance structure, I am also in favor of researching with our neighbors the possibility of forming a regional middle school.
Based on my enrollment analysis of all the public schools in a 15-mile radius of Manchester, for the past five years, no one is losing students like MEMS. Most of our neighbors, except Currier, seem to be staying level or actually gaining students. So, while the statewide trend may indicate that there is a declining student population in Vermont, I am not sure this is true for Manchester or our area. Local census data actually suggests that our youth population could be growing. For us to cut programming would make us less able to compete with the schools around us, public or private, and Manchester cannot afford the long term impacts of this especially given the well-known correlation between property value and quality of public school. According to Zillow.com, Manchester's median home value has fallen by 3.4% in the past year which continues the decline since the Great Recession.
I think we also need to have an honest conversation about another current source of declining enrollment: people are paying out-of-pocket to attend local independent schools. By my rough, yet conservative estimate, there are at the very least 40 school-aged children in Manchester who are not attending MEMS. I am also being told by many locals that people are choosing to live in neighboring towns instead. Why? I don't have the complete answer, yet. But I do know we are surrounded by independent schools who have people on staff dedicated to promoting the school. I know we have a lot of great teachers and unique offerings at MEMS. And I also know that we need to do a better job communicating with the citizenry how rich our programming is while listening closely to families when they choose to leave MEMS. In the next year I plan to make it a priority of mine to work with educators, parents, and community leaders to develop a strategy to effectively promote the school — you don't need to be an independent school to think like one. We need to take a page from the mountain towns who invested in Flood Brook, merged to form a Regional Education District (RED), and effectively promoted its school. Flood Brook has maintained level, if not growing enrollment in recent years, and Londonderry, who is part of the Mountain Town's RED, has realized an 11 percent increase in their median home value in the last year. I look forward to working with people in this community to do everything in our power to prove the declining enrollment projections wrong.
Call me naive, but I do have confidence that the legislature will provide some relief from the caps. And if they don't by Town Meeting, then residents of Manchester can vote the budget down if they so choose. I have not heard an outpouring of support to cut programs — quite the opposite. But we can't forget, thanks to the beauty of direct democracy, that Manchester ultimately will approve or deny this budget.
Jon Wilson is finishing up his first year on the school board. He is a Manchester homeowner and teacher at Burr and Burton. He can be reached at 802-379-8472 or at email@example.com