BRATTLEBORO — Regarding district consolidation under the education law Act 46, at least one official is concerned about anticipated savings or the lack thereof.
"In order to get the equity that is the goal, Brattleboro is going to be sending money to the surrounding towns, " said David Schoales, a member of both the Brattleboro Town School Board and the Selectboard who spoke to the Reformer on behalf of himself. "And given that our municipal tax rate is already twice that of most of those towns, we can't afford it."
School taxes in Brattleboro could increase by 5 percent in each of the five years between 2016 and 2021, according to an analysis tool made available through the Act 46 Implementation Project. The tool was created by the Vermont Superintendents Association, the Vermont School Boards Association and the Vermont School Boards Insurance Trust. The Agency of Education has endorsed the project aimed at providing support to supervisory unions and school districts looking at consolidation under the law. The goal of the law is to offer educational opportunities that promote equity, efficiency, quality and accountability, but also save taxpayers money.
The comparative illustrations are meant to show how property tax bills would be affected if a single district was created between Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney and Vernon. The analysis only addresses district consolidation as it pertains to tax incentives for districts moving quickly.
Under an "accelerated merger" model in Act 46, a 10 cent incentive will go to districts that approve a consolidation before July 1, 2016. A smaller tax break will go to districts deciding in 2017. Town-wide votes will be required before any merger. The deadline for all districts to have governance structures approved by the State Education Board is July 1, 2019.
The projections show all towns in the district having the same tax rate after five years. In order to do so, towns whose rates are lower will have to raise their taxes more.
While the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union's study committee charged with exploring district consolidation estimates an accelerated merger could see $100,000 worth of savings by sharing services, Brattleboro's savings from the tax incentives would be the lowest.
In the first year, Brattleboro residents could expect $111 of savings for every $100,000 of assessed property. But their school tax rates would increase by 46 cents over five years.
Under the same model, Guilford residents would get $97 of savings. They would see a 46 cent increase too. Dummerston could expect approximately $283 of savings with an increase of 35 cents over five years. Putney's savings comes out to be $257 with an increase of 36 cents over five years. A savings of $131 was estimated in Vernon with an increase of 42 cents over five years.
Schoales' view of Brattleboro as an economic hub takes into account residents of neighboring towns coming to Brattleboro to work, eat or visit doctors. Those people aren't providing funds for paving streets or clearing parking lots full of snow. That falls on the taxpayers of Brattleboro.
"To think that the school district would be doing the same thing, spending more than our schools actually cost, I don't think it's in the town's best interest," Schoales said. "I think it's too much of a burden on Brattleboro."
Brattleboro has low rates for school taxes due to it receiving $4.5 million annually from the state and federal governments for having a high number of students living in poverty. But Brattleboro's municipal tax rate is a different story.
According to Schoales, the town rate is more than twice that of surrounding towns and 40 percent higher than Guilford. A 5 percent increase in school taxes over five years would mean a 25 percent increase overall and no benefit would be felt from the tax incentives offered for faster mergers.
Even without a merger, the exercise of exploring consolidation won't be in futility. The study committee has identified dozens of opportunities for improving the schools, Schoales said.
"I believe that many of these improvements will happen regardless of the decision about governance because everyone is aware of them now," he said. "Almost every improvement and savings being projected can be done without eliminating town meetings and school budget votes. All that is needed is leadership and I think this study committee is definitely up to that challenge."
School boards have not yet received presentations from the committee and a merger can only happen if every town votes in favor of it. Schoales said he was sure an option of creating a new district without Brattleboro would be looked at.
With the exception of Vernon which has school choice, the other three towns involved in the study send their students to Brattleboro Union High School.
Putney and Dummerston are close to one another in proximity and similar in structure; they each offer classes from kindergarten to eighth grade. They would save the most under consolidation, according to the analysis.
A series of public forums are being scheduled and Schoales hopes the topic will come up at Representative Town Meeting in Brattleboro even with no article is being warned for it.