Winhall to vote on school sale

WINHALL - About 50 residents filled the multi-purpose room at the Mountain School at Winhall on Monday night for an informational meeting in advance of next Tuesday's vote at a Special Town Meeting on whether or not the Mountain School should be allowed to purchase the building for $700,000.

In a brief presentation, Chuck Scranton, the chairman of the board of trustees for The Mountain School at Winhall, said the school wanted to purchase the building to "be in control of their own destiny."

"This is a really important matter for us. Probably the most important date in the history of the school, [with] the exception of when it was founded, is next Tuesday," said Scranton. "Four years ago the conversation happened at a retreat of Mountain School Board trustees about our goals and our vision for the future and it became very clear to us after a couple of hours together that every single tenet, every single principle that we outline for our future goals, depended on our ownership of our facility."

The Mountain School is looking to expand at some point in the near future in part because enrollment has increased over the past several years. In the six years that Daren Houck has served as Headmaster of The Mountain School enrollment has increased from 54 students to 80 this year. By owning the building, Scranton said that it would make fund-raising efforts for the school much easier.

"Having had quite a few years of experience raising money, I would find it very difficult to enter a conversation with a potential donor about a significant gift to a school or a campus that we don't own," Scranton said. "So we're here tonight because we in our hearts believe its in the best interest of future students, present students and future students, of The Mountain School to own this facility and control our own destiny."

As things currently exist, the Winhall School Board owns the building The Mountain School is in and the Town of Winhall owns the land on which it sits.

At next Tuesday's meeting on April 2 - which will begin at 7 p.m. - voters will be asked whether or not they want to authorize the Winhall School Board to sell the building to The Mountain School at Winhall for $700,000 and there will be separate article asking voters whether or not the approximately 8.5 acres of land should be given to the school.

With ownership of the land and the building as it currently exists, if The Mountain School wanted to expand, they would probably have to do so through a bond, which would increase the tax rate to some extent if not significantly.

By owning the building they would be able to raise money for such improvements through private philanthropy. In that case, the cost would not be add pressure onto local taxes.

The tax rate became the subject of some discussion at the meeting as some residents questioned what would be done with the $700,000 the Winhall School Board would receive from the sale of the school.

Board member Christie Mackenzie said the board was planning to put $70,000 toward reducing the tax rate each year - which would result in a 10 cents per hundred dollars of assessed property value decrease - for the next 10 years.

Resident Doug Mackenzie questioned how much residents would save on their taxes if they were to take the savings from sale and apply it all in one year. Martin Nadler, the vice chairman the Winhall school board said that applying the $700,000 in one year would result in a 54 cents per hundred reduction on the tax rate. However, the following year there would be a 67 cent increase.

Another reason the school wants to own the building is due to the fact that they can't extend their current lease for the school - which they have had since its inception - after this year. They would then have to enter a new lease if they were not allowed to purchase the building and own the land. "That new lease [would be] far more unwieldy for us than our current lease. The cost to The Mountain School of this new lease far exceed our current lease and far exceed the cost of us buying this building when you look at the monthly mortgage rates," Scranton said. "The new lease is frightening to us. So, if we couldn't find a way to buy this building in two or three or four years we'd have to start scratching our heads and thinking of other alternatives because we can not afford the new lease except as maybe a bridge lease for a year."

If the building and land were to be owned by The Mountain School there would be a provision in the agreement that the town would have the opportunity to buy it back should The Mountain School ever decide to leave. However, Scranton and Houck said they have no intention of leaving that location. If the both articles are approved, use of the facility by the town would remain the same. For years the multi-purpose room has served as a meeting place for a variety of functions including Town Meeting. In recent years it has also been designated as an Emergency Shelter.

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