Winhall examines non-choice school options


WINHALL — The town's school board and taxpayers have been granted a surprise one-year reprieve by Burr and Burton Academy to remain one of its sending towns, while still paying a lower tuition rate.

But voters at Town Meeting also handed the school board a mandate: Look at all future education options, including those that might partially eliminate school choice.

After hearing from BBA that the school would accept the state average tuition of $15,130 per student rather than its sending town tuition of $17,065, voters cast a nonbinding advisory vote asking the school board to look at all options for their school system — including options that do not maintain school choice, like a potential merger with the Taconic and Green Regional Education District.

Winhall, which does not operate its own school and pays tuition for students in K-12 under a full school choice model, faced a staggering property tax increase after the enrollment of 29 students last August rather than the 10 that were anticipated and budgeted for. The growing enrollment led to a spike in per-pupil spending well over the state limit, and with a resulting penalty for exceeding that limit, the tax rate for Winhall residents was anticipated to rise 50 cents per $100 in assessed value if no action was taken.

Instead, the Winhall School Board opted to downgrade its reimbursement to Burr and Burton Academy (BBA) to the state tuition average of $15,130 — less than the "sending town" rate of $17,065 per year which ensures admission for Winhall students — reducing the tax increase to 27 cents per $100 of valuation.

But rather than deciding between a significant tax increase that eliminated the sending town arrangement, and a huge tax increase, Winhall received an unexpected gift from BBA — and a caution that it can't ever be repeated.

"We realize that a partnership is a partnership, and you're in an extraordinary quandary this year," said Seth Bongartz, president of BBA's Board of Trustees. "You were kicked into the penalty box through no fault of your own, so what we're going to do is accept the state average tuition for Winhall students this year. We have never done this before, and we can never do it again."

Bongartz' announcement, which was met with a standing ovation, followed brief comments from BBA Headmaster Mark Tashjian, who emphasized that the school's sending town tuition of $17,065 was comparable to others in the region. Tashjian also expressed sympathy for Winhall's predicament, in which the town finds itself penalized for achieving something Vermont's government is also striving for: attracting more young families to make their homes in the state.

"Our success if your success, and you as a town have been incredibly successful in being an education destination in the region," Tashjian said. "This very success is what's hammering you guys on taxes, and I think that's why there's so many people in the audience today."

In a letter to the editor of the Journal sent Wednesday, Bongartz and Tashjian said the $61,000 cost of the one-year exception would come of out BBA's endowment. "Our clear expectation is that Winhall will pay our full sending town tuition next year either by properly warning our tuition, joining Taconic and Green, or finding some other solution," they said.

Explaining their thinking, Bongartz and Tashjian said they decided on the exception when they learned there was no practical way to amend the tuition rate to the sending rate from the Town Meeting floor.

"There was no provision to grandfather current BBA students; these kids were the ones who would pay the highest price were we to do nothing," they said.

As for the exception, they acknowledged it might seem unfair to the other 11 sending towns, but was the only course of action fair to current Winhall BBA students. "Our alternative was to leave current BBA students twisting in the wind, something our sense of decency would not allow us to do," they said.

Choice debate

Mountain School Principal Peter Ahfled and Maple Street School Head Fanning Hearon also urged the audience to allow their institutions to work with the board to find a solution that keeps choice intact.

"We have reversed the trend of the rest of the state, we're actually increasing the student population, but unfortunately the state funding model punishes our success," said Ian Jones, chair of the Mountain School's Board of Trustees. "We ask you to continue the model of choice — we need time to roll up our sleeves and come up with a creative solution, especially in light of funding changes that may come down the pipe from the state."

"Maple Street School is the single largest educator of Winhall students," Hearon said. "We respectfully ask residents to vote 'no' to any article that discusses a potential merger with the Taconic and Green. We believe choice is good for our students and families, and we really believe that choice is good for Winhall."

Still, the vote does not mean that the Winhall School District will be proposing a merger with the Taconic and Green right away. The vote simply gives the school board an indication of where the community stands on the issue of school choice, and just how negotiable that stance is.

Now, a soon-to-be-formed committee will begin working on a solution following the district's next school board meeting on Monday, March 12.

According to Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union Superintendent Jacqueline Wilson, that board will need to initiate a study to determine if merging with an adjoining district is the best option. If the study concluded that a merger would be preferable, the committee would then need to seek approval from both the State Board of Education as well as their own voters to proceed. Finally, the Taconic and Green's voters would need to vote in favor of accepting the Winhall School District.

As current students are not "grandfathered in" to the school choice model, Wilson says, those currently enrolled in a choice school may be impacted if the district voted to merge.

Throughout the meeting residents described their quandary as a "prisoners dilemma" of sorts, in which many find themselves in favor of school choice while simultaneously concerned by the potential for rising taxes. Physician and Winhall resident Janel Kittredge, for example, urged voters — even those in favor of school choice, like herself — to explore all of their options.

"This tax increase is tremendous and impacts all taxpayers, but there are so many other pieces here," she said. "We need to take the time to look at this; I think that making a big decision like this on a knee-jerk reaction would be a really bad idea."

Others, however, argued that voters should fight for the school choice model from the get-go.

"I'm a real estate lawyer who does a lot of work in Winhall, Stratton, and all of the surrounding towns, so I see first hand why so many people want to buy houses in Winhall," said Matthew Samuelson, who is also chair of the Maple Street School Board of Trustees. "It's because of school choice, and if we get rid of that the fair market value of those homes would plummet. I don't think we should consider any option that would eliminate school choice."

The school portion of the meeting followed a discussion focusing on town government matters, in which voters approved an amendment to add $100,000 to Winhall's general reserve fund in order to cover unanticipated costs in renovating the town's community center. Residents also approved a $2,500 appropriation to support the Green Mountain Club's effort to install an obsevation tower atop the summit of Bromley Mountain.

State Rep. Kelly Pajala made an appearance to introduce H.R. 253 in honor of recently deceased resident Theodor Friedman, to whom the town report was dedicated. Friedman had previously served on Winhall's Select Board, Board of Listers, School Board, Zoning Board, Board of Civil Authority, Windham Regional Commission, Vermont League of Cities and Towns, Winhall Planning Commission, and the Vermont Coalition of Municipalities.

According to the dedication, Friedman was considered to be the "honorary 'mayor' of Bondville."


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