Mountain School, Winhall School Board tangle over tuition

WINHALL - The rejection of a petition filed by the Mountain School at Winhall concerning their 2013-2014 tuition request sparked what was at times a heated and tense conversation at the Winhall School Board's meeting on Wednesday night.

Last month The Mountain School's Board of Trustees was informed that the Winhall School Board had decided to warn their tuition at $13,000 per pupil for grades K-8 instead of the $13,550 for students in grades K-6 and $13,750 for students in grades 7-8 that they had originally requested, according to Chuck Scranton, the chairman of The Mountain School Board of Trustees.

The Mountain School then filed the petition signed by 54 residents, which was rejected. According to an e-mail from the Director of Elections and Campaign Finance for the Vermont Secretary of State's Office, Kathleen Scheele, to the school board's vice chairman Martin Nadler, Scheele believed that the petition should be withdrawn under case law.

"I believe it is only the school board that can propose a budget or a tuition payment in an article," Scheele's email to Nadler stated. There seemed to be some confusion on the point though as Scranton said The Mountain School's attorney, Steve Norton, had talked to Scheele who said that the petition was "completely valid."

Although the petition may be valid, Secretary of State Jim Condos said there has been case law giving the board the authority to reject the petition.

"Tuition and the budget falls under the authority of the school board and therefore the school board has the authority to accept or reject a petition," said Condos. "They can accept a petition, but not act on it. They can accept it and deal with it or they can just reject it outright because the setting of the budget and the setting of the tuition does fall under their authority."

Condos continued to say that since Winhall votes from the floor the article regarding The Mountain School's tuition could be amended if voters were interested in increasing it.

At Town Meeting last year voters opted to increase the tuition for The Mountain School from the $12,750 per pupil that was warned to $13,160 for students in grades K-6 and $13,360 for students in grades 7 and 8 - the amount The Mountain School had originally requested.

The Winhall School Board had lowered The Mountain School's - as well other school's - proposed tuition last year because the school district was facing insolvency.

The financial crisis was caused by an influx of students moving into the area over a period of years after the Average Daily Membership (ADM) - which is used to calculate the number of equalized pupils that helps the district budget their educational expenses - had been counted and the budget had been approved by voters.

A couple of years ago, Nadler said, former state representative Oliver Olsen (R - Jamaica) played a major role in helping pass legislation into law that relieved school districts from any tuition dollars or expenses that were the result of students entering the district after the ADM had been calculated. Still, school board member Christina Mackenzie said on Wednesday night that they are close to the threshold, which could cause them to enter a penalty situation.

"We're still trying to find that level where we stay out of the penalty box and the only reason we're out of it this year is because we have some credits that Marty found that are keeping us out," Mackenzie said. "There's just a fine line when you put everything down on the budget and we're bumping up against it."

If the threshold were to be exceeded, Winhall would have to pay $1 for every dollar they spent beyond the threshold.

Since Winhall does not operate a school, they have to pay the cost of tuition to a student's school of choice - whether it be in state, out of state, or even out of the country, according to previous reports.

Further compounding the problem is Burr and Burton Academy's tuition, which increased 2.9 percent this year to $ 14,875 per pupil. Each year the Town of Winhall approves BBA's tuition with the agreement that the school will accept all of the town's students - a guarantee that would dissipate if they decided not to approve the tuition.

Another issue that has arisen is that due to residency requirements the tuition for some students attending The Mountain School is not being paid this year whereas in the past it has been.

"There are disputed residencies," said Mountain School Headmaster Daren Houck. "[There are] students who are living in the town and for whatever reason the school board has made decisions that they're not considered residents so the families have to go through a process with them and can appeal it at the state level, which I know some families have done."

In a conversation with Nadler on Thursday, he indicated that the residency of families has been more closely scrutinized by the school board.

"We're being more stringent," said Nadler. "We're using the same things that we've always used, but we're actually being more vigilant and more careful in ensuring that the people who are applying for residency are in fact showing everything that they need to show to ensure that they are residents."

Last year, Nadler said that they challenged a residency and after the family appealed to the state the Commissioner of Education, Armando Vilaseca, upheld the district's decision.

Also at issue in the meeting was a report being worked on by consultant John Everitt pertaining to the potential purchase of The Mountain School building and property - which is owned by the Town of Winhall - by school.

Among the information to be included in Everitt's report are the potential tax implications of the school purchasing the building.

During the meeting on Wednesday, the Winhall School Board informed the Board of Trustees and the taxpayers in attendance that there was a draft that had been completed, but that it had not been finalized.

It is unclear whether or not the Board of Trustees will get to see the draft of the report that currently exists. However, they voiced their desire to the school board to look over Everitt's final version so that they have the opportunity to give input on it prior to a special Town Meeting centering around the purchase of the building that is tentatively scheduled for April 2. In order to do that, Scranton said they would need to see the report by early March.

A constant theme throughout the meeting attended by about a dozen people was the perceived animosity directed toward The Mountain School at Winhall by members of the Winhall School Board. That coupled with the lack of communication between the two parties gave rise to varying levels of agitation for Mountain School at Winhall trustees, Winhall School Board members and taxpayers alike throughout the course of the meeting.

"I've been on the board for five years," said Scranton. "There's a perception on our part that there's animosity on behalf of some members of the school board towards The Mountain School. It's frustrating. It's incredibly frustrating and it's illustrated here by the conversation we had about John Everitt and we just feel excluded. And then when we're not part of things, when things happen quietly, we can't help but wonder, falsely so perhaps, is there a hidden agenda."

Toward the end of the meeting, in an attempt to improve communication, the Board of Trustees agreed to allow members of the school board to attend Board of Trustee meetings - something it is hoped will help improve the relationship between the two entities.

"We want a strong and healthy relationship with the Winhall School Board," said Houck. "Our core mission is to serve the children of Winhall, Stratton and beyond. So, we have a common mission there. We have a common goal. So, we want to work [with them.]"


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