Winhall residents discuss tax, choice options
For two solid hours, school board members and educators answered questions about the tax hike, the town's relationship with Burr and Burton Academy, and how it the potential options will impact them, their children and real estate values. Peter Ahfeld of The Mountain School and Fanning Hearon III of Maple Street School hosted the session, and Winhall board members Dean Gionotti Jr. and Jennifer Samuelson and state Rep. Kelly Pajala, I-Londonderry, answered questions.
Winhall faces a significant education property tax increase in fiscal 2019, as the school district, which does not operate a school but pays tuition for its K-12 students to attend independent and public schools elsewhere, has seen costs rise as families moved to town to take advantage of that program. The district absorbed 29 additional students for the 2017-18 school year -- well more than the 10 new students it expected — and that, along with a deficit incurred for an unexpected enrollment surge the year before, has resulted in steep projected tax hikes for fiscal 2019.
The school board has recommended paying BBA the state average tuition of $15,130 per student next school year rather than BBA's sending town tuition of $17,065. This would drive down the projected education property tax hike to $2.20 per $100 in assessed value, as it exempts the town from paying a penalty for exceeding the state per-pupil expenditure limit.
But it would also end Winhall's "sending town" agreement with BBA, which guarantees admission for resident high school students. If Winhall were to remain a BBA sending town its tax rate would be $2.43 per $100 in assessed value.
Voters will decide what to do when Winhall's town meeting convenes at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, March 6, at The Mountain School.
The board is also asking voters to consider amending town meeting rules to allow for votes on school choice by Australian ballot rather than from the floor of town meeting. This procedural change would open the door for the town to discuss joining the Taconic & Green Regional School District — a move that would end school choice for grades K-8, but reaffirm (or restore) the sending town agreement with BBA.
While school board members support school choice, they believe the town needs to discuss all the options on the table, including joining the T&G. Gianotti said the board's attempts to deal with increases has left it "without any tools in its tool box," and once it lowers the tuition payment to BBA, it will have no other choices.
"We don't want to change anything but we have a responsibility to give you guys options," Gianotti said.
"I personally don't want to give that up but as a board member I felt it wasn't my choice," Samuelson added. "I don't have the ability to make that choice for everyone in the town, and we felt it was incumbent on us to present the alternatives, have a full conversation and leave it up to the voters,"
But Emily Schriebl warned that if Winhall gives up K-8 school choice, "There is no going back." She said anyone who feels strongly about school choice should be ready to make that case at town meeting.
"When I was a kid driving from Manchester, all the houses (along the highway) were dark. Now there are lights the whole way. There are neighbors the whole way up the mountain. They're here for the schools These houses that have sat on the market for years and years and years are selling to parents," Schriebl said. "It's put money back into the economy. There is a real case to be made for a growing, thriving community. "
Under the option presented by the board, a taxpayer with a house worth $200,000 would pay an additional $600 in school property taxes, Gianotti said. But if that taxpayer were also a BBA parent, they would be responsible for a tuition gap of about $3,000 per student in addition to the tax increase.
Over the past few years, the school board has decided to pay the state average tuition rather than the full or sending tuition to independent schools, as a means of controlling costs. Families have picked up the remainder of the cost, with the schools providing financial aid. At present, BBA is the last remaining school Winhall pays more than the state average tuition.
But in order to get out of the state's "penalty box" for paying too high a per-pupil cost, the school board has proposed severing its "sending town" agreement with BBA. Under state law, a town that pays the state average tuition to everyone is exempt from the penalty.
It wasn't easy for the board to decide to pay BBA the state average instead, Gianotti said, but the board was not comfortable with presenting voters with a tax rate increase of 50 cents.
A number of residents were concerned about ending the sending town agreement with BBA, and how that might impact property values in Winhall. Some asked if it might be possible to pay the state average for a year, and then become a sending town again when the financial picture stabilizes. Another warned that families of special education students would be particuarly hard-hit by losing the sending town relationship.
"It seems for 23 cents [on the tax rate] we're throwing away high school education and creating a pretty severe burden on people," Ron Eisenman said.
The question of sending students to Leland & Gray High School in Townshend was raised, but a number of parents said transportation would be a problem. "How can I afford to transport my child to Leland & Gray if I can;t afford tution to BBA? I feel like there's a big gap," one mother said.
If a significant portion of Winhall students went to Leland & Gray, "I am sure the board would spend a significant amount of time" to figure out that part of the puzzle, Gianotti said.
Reach Journal editor Greg Sukiennik at 802-490-6000 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.