Westford To Vote On Closing Public School
A petition submitted to the Westford School Board has raised a lot of questions this week. It asks for a vote on closing down the town's elementary school, and opening an independent school in its place. That vote will happen at Town Meeting, Monday evening, March 3, according to a school board posting on the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union website:
The school board has received a petition asking that the elementary school in Westford be closed and that an approved independent school be opened in its place. The board just received this petition a few days ago and is in the process of researching with legal experts how the question should be legally warned to the voters. We will be meeting on Wednesday, January 29th to approve a new warning that includes the intent of the petition.
The board said the petition raises many questions, and school directors will do their best to research the answers. Some of the yet-to-be-answered questions identified by the board are:
Should we vote to close our school without knowing any of the details about what might replace it? Would our time be better spent working with other school boards to lobby for change in the state funding system that would change the present dynamics that are leading to high tax increases? How can we compare the present quality of the school to what might replace it? Should the town give up its public school and lose its voice in how the school is run and how much it costs?
The board also posted answers to several questions the petition has raised:
What does it mean for a town to close its elementary school? The law says that if a town does not operate a school it must pay tuition to the public or approved independent school of the parent’s choice. What is an approved independent school? This is a private school that has received approval from the State Board of Education to operate and accept public tuition dollars. It is usually a private, nonprofit entity (although it could be “for profit”) run by a board of directors. The directors are not publicly elected and there are no requirements for the board to hold public meetings. The board of directors of the independent school determines the amount of tuition it will charge for students to attend the school. How would the budget for the elementary portion of the school district be determined? Parents can choose to send their child to any public or approved independent school. The law says this: If the school district does not operate an elementary school and a student goes to a public elementary school, the full tuition is paid. Tuition paid to an approved independent school is capped by statute – 16 V.S.A. § 823(b). Unless the voters choose to pay more, the district pays the lesser of the average announced tuition for union elementary schools ($11,703 this year), the tuition charged by the approved independent school or the average per-pupil tuition paid for the other resident students. What happens if the approved independent school charges more than the amount of tuition the town is required to pay? As with our high school students the parents must make up the difference. Have other communities in Vermont voted to do this? We only know of two communities that have done this. They are Winhall and North Bennington. We will be researching their experience. Would the town be able to save money by moving in this direction? This will be a tough question to answer since it would entirely depend on the choices that parents make. We do know that this would not change the way education funding works. Since most communities in Vermont are experiencing the same situation we are…..no or small increases in the budget resulting in high tax increases…we are not certain that this change would make a difference. We do know that in FY13 Westford’s total per pupil spending was below the statewide average. We will be learning as much as we can in the coming days to try to help answer this question. Again, if there is information that you think we should research in this regard please let us know.
The motivation behind the petition appears to be a desire to divorce the school from the state education funding formula. Westford's proposed budget for the next school year includes "a small increase that translates into a high tax increase." Here is the board's explanation for that situation, which the board says is a common predicament in Vermont school districts this year:
The school budget that we voted for FY10 was $5,194,034. The budget we are proposing for FY15 is $5,153,985. How can our taxes be going up so much? The funding formula bases taxes on per pupil spending. Our number of pupils have declined. The Great Recession has resulted in lower property values across the state. The nonresidential tax (second homes, commercial property, etc.) is not only not growing as it has in the past, it is bringing in less money. The revenues other than the property tax that go into the Education Fund are growing more slowly than school spending. Last year the state relied on a one time funding source of $20M. Since 1 penny raises about $10M for the Education Fund it takes a two cent increase in the base tax rate just to make up for this lost revenue. The state’s share of Special Education costs are projected to increase by $10M for FY15. The state’s reliance on the property tax to fund education has increased from 61% in FY2005 to 68% in FY2015.
Westford's Town Meeting will be held Monday, March 3 and the school budget vote will take place Tuesday, March 4. School directors are asking voters to participate in both those events. The board is also encouraging voters to approach a school board member with any questions they may have in the meantime.