Future of BBA relationship a concern in Winhall

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WINHALL — At town meeting in March, Burr and Burton Academy made Winhall voters a deal that lessened the blow of a potentially steep property tax hike: It would accept payment of the state average tuition assessment of $15,130 per BBA student for the 2018-19 school year, rather than its sending town rate of $17,062 per student.

But BBA made the offer, which voters accepted, on one firm condition: It had to be for one year only, out of fairness to its other sending towns.

That potentially leaves the Winhall School Board with a difficult decision to make between now and next March: Will it return to paying the sending rate, or pay the average state tuition rate as it does for every other independent school its students attend?

What the town should do going forward was a topic of conversation at the Winhall School Board's Aug. 23 meeting, held in the library of The Mountain School at Winhall.

About a dozen or so residents were on hand to make their feelings known about the situation.

But in the meantime, there's hope that tighter monitoring and control of enrollment, including increased proof-of-residency requirements for new students, will save the board, and town meeting voters, from having to make that tough decision.

The choices come with differences of opinion between those willing to pay higher taxes for education and those who don't want or can't afford those increases; and between those committed to Winhall's sending town agreement with BBA, and those who feel BBA families should pay extra out of pocket, as families of Winhall students at other independent schools do.

Robert Oakes of Winhall said he felt that BBA parents should pick up the difference between the average tuition reimbursement and the full cost.

"I think the time has come. If you're going to have private school tuition and that quality of education, the parents should be able and willing to pick up part of the cost. I don't think you can keep dumping this on taxpayers," Oakes said. "I don't know if you got your tax bill yesterday. I got mine. It's not good. I'm retired, I don't know how you keep this up."

Diana Scott, the parent of a Burr and Burton sophomore, said she's working three jobs this summer to maintain a home and tax payments in Winhall. She said she could not afford to pay the difference between the average tuition and full tuition, or realistically work more than three jobs.

"Burr and Burton is our de facto public high school," she said, adding that the closest public options, Arlington Memorial High School and Leland & Gray High School in Townshend, are both 40 minutes away. "I'll sell my house at a loss to keep my child at BBA," she said.

While the board considers the financial and educational ramifications, there are early indications that last year's enrollment spike of 27 new students, well in excess of the 10 new arrivals the school board expected, was indeed an anomaly.

Winhall's K-12 choice program — it's a "non-operating" district that pays tuition for every student, public or private — has made the town a draw for families wanting that option. But each new student increases the town's tuition payment bill, like a layer cake. That has driven cost, and with it, property tax rates.

Board chairperson Jennifer Samuelson told GNAT-TV's Andrew McKeever that the early enrollment figures are lower than what was forecast for 2018-19 during the budgeting process for fiscal 2019.

"We still have families coming into the area but looks like we have 15 students fewer than what we had budgeted for in March," Samuelson told GNAT. "Although the tax rate has been set for the coming year it does bode well for the tax rate in following years."

"There are no magical quick fixes. We just need to work within the system and try to come up with a model that's more sustainable and more predictable and I think that will help the tax rate to stabilize," she said.

That would come as a relief to Samuelson and her fellow school board members, who outlined the difficulty of the challenge at the Aug. 23 meeting.

"The great challenge this board faces is trying to find a middle ground," board member Dean Gianotti Jr. said after residents had spoken. He said Winhall's tax rate is already "insanely high," and that he's concerned that the status quo offers the town little control over future tax rate growth so long as families continue to seek residence in Winhall to take advantage of its K-12 full choice program.

Board member Meridith Dennes said it's vital that Winhall maintain school choice, as a means of giving the town's children the best educational opportunities possible and encouraging them to return to live here once they've completed their educations. "Having that educational opportunity and having your town support you is very meaningful," she said.

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