Winhall voters face tough choices

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WINHALL — For years, this town in the Green Mountains has been known not only as the gateway to Stratton Mountain, but as a community with a significant educational perk: Full school choice, from kindergarten to senior year of high school. But that selling point has led to an expensive drawback.

Last fall, 29 new students showed up in Winhall — far more than the 10 new students the Winhall School Board had anticipated for the 2017-18 school year. Suddenly, the town faced a staggering education tax hike of 50 cents per $100 in assessed value.

The Winhall School Board has developed an alternative solution, which it will present to voters at town meeting next month.

It reduces the tax increase to 27 cents per $100 by paying the state average tuition to Burr and Burton Academy next year, instead of the higher sending-town tuition rate. But that means Winhall will lose its sending town status with BBA, and it means Winhall BBA parents will need to pay nearly $3,000 per student to cover the gap.

"Nobody likes this position," School Board Chairwoman Christie MacKenzie said. "Ultimately, the townspeople have to decide what they have to do. This is not our decision — everybody has a voice in this. It's important that everybody knows this."

With school choice costs spiraling, the board is asking voters to consider authorizing future votes on school choice as Australian ballot, rather than from the town meeting floor. That procedural step could point in the direction of joining the Tacoinc & Green Regional School District —a move that would likely reduce education property taxes, but also eliminate school choice for elementary and middle school.

All eyes will be on Winhall's town meeting, at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, March 6, at The Mountain School, and there are concerns that the debate could get heated. Independent schools serving Winhall are making plans to mobilize parent support, and an informational meeting on that effort is planned for Monday at 5:30 p.m. at The Mountain School.

Too much of a good thing?

As a "non-operating" district without a public school in any grade, Winhall pays tuition for the town's children to attend public and independent schools.

Budget data shows Winhall parents largely choose independent options. This year, about 28 Winhall children are attending public schools, with the majority at Manchester Elementary Middle School; 148 are attending independent schools, such as The Mountain School in Winhall, Maple Street School in Manchester, and BBA.

As Winhall became a popular destination for parents seeking school choice, the school board has been working to manage the impact of growth on taxes, MacKenzie said. The town used to pay the full sending rate for everyone; this year it paid the lower state average tuition for all independent schools except BBA, with parents and school financial aid filling the gap between the state average and the actual bill.

When the school board learned 29 more students were coming for 2017-18, they knew there would be trouble.

"That was a shock," MacKenzie said. "Because we are a choice town and there's very little we have control over, it's a glaring problem and we knew it off the bat."

The sudden influx of students hiked the school budget from $2.84 million in fiscal 2018 year to a proposed $3.53 million for fiscal 2019.

If the board changed nothing, the estimated tax rate for Winhall property owners would increase by nearly 50 cents per $100 in assessed valuation, to $2.43 from $1.93.

Instead, the board has suggested the town pay the state average tuition of $15,130 to BBA rather than the "sending town" tuition of $17,065. That would reduce the tax increase by 27 cents, to about $2.20 per $100 in valuation.

But it would also mean BBA families would now have to pay the difference between what the town pays and the full $18,025 private tuition rate at BBA — nearly $3,000 per pupil — and they would lose the admissions preference the town has long enjoyed with BBA as a sending town.

That, said BBA Headmaster Mark Tashjian, leaves the school's hands tied.

"We have 12 sending towns and we have an obligation to treat them all equally. And equal treatment means the same tuition and admissions preference. So if one town chooses not to be a sending town I can't treat them as a sending town out of fairness to others," Tashjian said.

MacKenzie said she hopes the change, if approved, won't negatively affect Winhall's relationship with BBA, or its ability to send students there.

"My hope is BBA recognizes we're not trying to do anything to hurt our relationship with them. We are between a rock and a hard place," she said. "To the extent that the town can only afford pay the union average across the board, we hope BBA will continue to take our students."

Tashjian recognizes the difficulty Winhall faces, but says BBA also faces limited options.

"We want Winhall students at Burr and Burton Academy. We've had a long history of partnership," Tashjian said. "I would love Winhall to continue to be a sending town for every good reason. And I recognize based on the funding formula that places an additional tax burden on the town.

"I would hope they'd see the additional [tax] to be worth it, not only educationally for students but worth it in terms of property values in Winhall and the attractiveness of Winhall as a place to live," he continued. "I hope there's some solution that can be developed over the next 12 months that would help lessen the tax burden."

Staying out of the "penalty box"

Why the steep increase? The equalized per-pupil expenditure resulting from paying tuition for 29 more students would result in too high a per-pupil spending number under the state's complicated education funding formula. That carries a financial penalty, and taxpayers get the bill.

According to Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union Superintendent Jackie Wilson, Winhall's per-pupil expenditure would have topped $23,000 had it made no changes to its spending plan. Under the alternative proposed by the board, that number would be $21,017.

For comparison, the T&G district is projecting per-pupil spending of $16,700 for fiscal 2019.

"What we realized was we do want to remain a choice town on some level. But there is a cost to choice and basically this was the best way we could justify the tax increase, reluctantly," MacKenzie said. "If we pay the union average for K through 12 we're no longer in the penalty box. So there's savings by virtue of staying out of the penalty box, which is quite real."

The paradox of all this, public and private education leaders agree, is that Winhall is being penalized for attracting more students as a choice district, when the same results as a public district would make it a shining example in a state where declining enrollments and rising costs are driving debate on education funding reform.

"If you were in a public school system and you had 29 new kids come in, you would be psyched," Wilson said. "You probably wouldn't have to increase costs at all. You would absorb the kids and it would wind up lowering student costs. In this situation, when a kid moves in you're paying the tuition bill. So there's no cost savings you can realize."

The paradox doesn't sit well with Tashjian, who calls the penalty Winhall faces "borderline absurd."

"The irony to me is you have a town like Winhall which is actually growing," said Fanning Hearon III, the head of school at Maple Street School. "They're attracting young families with kids. This is like the governor's dream. Yet towns like Winhall are being penalized for that growth. It seems wrong that Winhall is growing and is being penalized by an archaic tax structure. There should be some reward for that growth."

Tashjian said he has "tremendous sympathy" for Winhall residents.

"They must be frustrated beyond description that they're getting hammered by their own success," Tashjian said.

The future of choice

While the tax impact gets top billing, the potential for Winhall to join the Taconic & Green Regional School District, and the loss of K-8 school choice that would follow, is a significant concern for independent schools.

The Mountain School at Winhall is educating 33 students from Winhall this year, and is receiving $464,120 in tuition, according to the proposed Winhall School District budget. Maple Street School in Manchester has 56 Winhall students, for which the town is paying $777,013 in tuition, according to the Winhall budget. That's nearly half of the school's enrollment of 121 students grades K-8.

"It is a major concern for us," Hearon said. "That is a significant portion of our operating revenue so it affects everybody."

If school choice were to disappear in Winhall, "We would have to come up with a different funding model," he said. "We'd continue to exist and thrive ... it would be a big shift for our school and our parents."

That said, "We're going to do everything we can to maintain school choice," he said.

MacKenzie said the Taconic & Green remains an unknown quantity in Winhall, but it's one that the voters will want to explore given the current situation and the requirements of Act 46, the state's school consolidation law.

But she's not sure that Winhall is ready to give up choice, despite all the current difficulty.

"I think people will work hard to protect choice," she said. "It's something Winhall has had and tried to hold onto. There are lots of reasons around that."

Reach Journal editor Greg Sukiennik at 802-490-6000 or at gsukiennik@manchesterjournal.com.

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