WINHALL — An influx of new residents to this small town in the Green Mountains amid the coronavirus pandemic has complicated its school district's financial planning.
The Winhall Town School District's $3.8 million budget for the current 2020-2021 school year, approved by the board in January and voters in March, presumed 202 students in kindergarten through high school, a figure that included 15 "ghost
students," or anticipated new enrollees. But as of Sept. 10, according to board documents, enrollment totaled 235 students, far surpassing the pre-coronavirus projection.
The arrival of a substantial number of new residents — an otherwise arguably desirable outcome in a state seeking to overcome what Gov. Phil Scott has called a "demographic crisis" — poses a challenge for the district's school-choice model. The district does not operate any schools; instead, it pays for its students to attend public and independent schools in and outside of the region.
Each additional, unanticipated student effectively represents another tuition bill for the district to foot and increases the risk of the district exceeding the state's per-pupil spending limit, which would trigger a tax penalty.
A student count of 236 — one student higher than the more recent tabulation — "would cause the district to go over budget by $523,000," according to an Aug. 27 memo from Randi Lowe, superintendent of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union, which oversees the Winhall district, to the Vermont House Committee on Ways and Means. Lowe estimated that the district potentially could see a tax rate increase in next school year's budget of 46 cents per $100 of property value "due to both the sharp increase in student population and the need to cover an anticipated deficit."
The town's current homestead education tax rate is $1.7725, which means that school taxes on a hypothetical home with a grand list value of $200,000 total $3,545. If the 46-cent tax increase floated by Lowe were to come to fruition, that same homestead parcel would receive a school-tax bill of $4,465, an increase of $920.
At meetings in early August and mid-September, the district's three board members — Chair Jennifer Samuelson, Dean Gianotti, Jr., and Meridith Dennes — and BRSU administrators discussed the enrollment surge, its budgetary impact and possible remedies, according to GNAT-TV footage.
The board agreed in August to seek help from state lawmakers to secure relief through a variety of potential legislative actions, including by waiving any tax penalties the district might incur over the next couple of years. In a memo the following month, Samuelson detailed a list of more than a dozen state officials and people affiliated with local schools to whom she had "reached out ... to discuss the population surge in Winhall and brainstorm possible avenues for relief."
However, Samuelson wrote in the same memo, "[a]t this point, I do not see a legislative response happening and encourage us to explore creative local solutions with the independent schools in the region."
At the Sept. 15 meeting, BRSU business manager Sue Wilborn outlined an option that would not depend upon legislative action: a three-year, low-interest bank loan, which could help to smooth out the fiscal impact of this year's enrollment spike. Wilborn said she anticipated recommending that alternative to the board when it begins drafting its next budget later this year.
"We don't want to hit the tax rate with that entire deficit in one year," said Wilborn, who later answered affirmatively in response to a question from Samuelson about whether "even if we spread this over three years, it's still going to hurt."
Samuelson said state lawmakers might have an appetite for facilitating a zero-interest loan to cover the deficit, which Wilborn called "a great idea."
In an interview on Tuesday, Samuelson said a loan is not her "preferred solution" but that the board is doing its due diligence and will see what pans out.
Winhall's population surge attracted attention recently from The New York Times, which reported that, since the spring, "the number of available single-family homes in Winhall and Stratton, the adjacent ski resort, has dropped to 29 from 129, its lowest level since 2003." State officials anticipate a statewide increase in school enrollment of 2 to 5 percent, according to the newspaper.
Samuelson said during the August board meeting that in light of "the number of out-of-state families that are moving to Winhall, I think we have a pretty clear chain of causation that a lot of these families are moving here in response to the pandemic."
"We've never, ever, ever experienced growth on this level at all," she added.