West River district school closure projections presented

Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend.

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TOWNSHEND — Board members are weighing the pros and cons of rearranging or closing school buildings in the merged West River Education District as a way to control costs.

During a meeting held remotely Monday, "the driving question" for Windham Central Finance Director Laurie Garland's presentation was: "What is the best way to 'reset' the tax rate while providing a high quality education for all students?" She was asked to explore different options as part of a long-term planning process for the district, which had budgets in June and last year rejected by voters.

Board member Mike Foley said the projections show the district cannot pay tuition for pre-k-12 students to go to schools outside the district to avoid a financial penalty imposed by the state for exceeding a spending threshold.

"Almost but not quite," Garland said. "It was surprising to me as well."

By closing all the schools, offsetting revenue would drop by about $1 million when certain grants and tuition payments from out-of-district students are eliminated. The cost per pupil would be reduced by about $1,000.

The unified tax rate for the non-operational model for the next fiscal year, which was described by officials as mostly just an intellectual exercise, would be about $1.83.

"Looking at all these other options and realizing that for 17 cents more or 20 cents more, we can provide so much more, it becomes a much more reasonable conversation for me as a taxpayer and a much more defensible position as a board member," said Joe Winrich, board vice chairman. "It's like, we can give your kids nothing except a ride on a bus to wherever you want us to take them or you can drive them for a buck 83, or you can keep them in your local school and have that control and have that access and have that input in that programming for 20 cents more."

The board voted unanimously not to explore closing all the schools.

If the district continues running the three elementary schools and the high/middle school, Garland anticipates this fiscal year's unified tax rate of $2.04 would reach $2.27 next year — an 11.24 percent increase. That is followed by increases of 4.44 percent, 5.56 percent and 5.52 percent in the subsequent years to land at a rate of $2.65 in fiscal year 2025.

The projection assumes increases in salaries, benefits, special education, transportation and food service. Also included in the estimate is a $4 million bond for 30 years to address building needs.

With running just two elementary schools and L&G, next year's unified tax rate is projected to only go up by a penny. The projection included similar assumptions and no substantial loss of staffing but board member Ken McFadden suggested the rate would be higher due to maintenance costs still required for the vacant building.

Board member Dana West of Jamaica said community members strongly oppose closing the elementary school in his town. With the tax rate not being much lower in the projection for closing one elementary school, he said he would have a difficult time selling a proposal that did so to voters in his town.

Foley called for putting more pressure on legislators to implement items recommended in a pupil-weighting study. Different weights are assigned to students according to age, economic disadvantage and ability to speak the English language.

In part, the study's authors found "clear evidence that districts located in Vermont's most sparsely populated areas must spend more to provide similar educational opportunities as those found in districts located in more populated areas of the state." They recommended that new weights for students in districts located in rural areas be tied to population density of the host community.

Board member Emily Long, a state representative for the Windham-5 district, said the coronavirus pandemic presented challenges for Vermonters that the Legislature needed to address.

"That does not minimize the need to implement the weighting study," she said.

Long said the study shows students are not being treated equitably across the state and she intends to fight to correct that.

McFadden called fixes to pupil weighting "long overdue" as they negatively affect rural areas. He said some of his neighbors have relocated due to the constantly increasing tax rates and with less students, the cost per pupil will continue to go up.

Recommendations in the study would likely add to the district's pupil count each year and could allow the district to keep up with cost increases, Garland said.

"We might flatten the line a little bit," she said.

Long suggested the entire education funding system in Vermont should be reviewed. She supports removing the penalty for excess spending.

To avoid the penalty, Garland said the district would need to significantly increase revenues or decrease expenses. She noted in recent years, revenues have been decreasing while expenses have been increasing.

"The gap is what causes the penalty," she said.

Garland estimated the district would need to cut about $1.4 million in expenses to be below the spending threshold. Board members said that would require cutting programs or closing school buildings.

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The district's board started the long-term planning process in May. Presentations for the community are expected in the fall.

At the beginning of the meeting, the board voted 7-1 to discontinue exploring options involving closing Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School and constructing a new building. That had been the recommendation of the district's budget committee. McFadden cast the dissenting vote.

Johanna Liskowsky-Doak, parent and dean of students at L&G, urged the board not to consider closing L&G. In a letter, she said talks would drive away families and teachers.

"Coming off of the most challenging, exciting and strange school year in history, we at Leland & Gray are carrying forth with us the passion, drive, motivation and care that we have for each and every one of our students in mind," she wrote. "We have spent hours discussing the positive outcomes of the distance learning experience, we are beginning to design and plan for all of the ways we can continue to personalize our students' educational paths, increase our academic rigor and build on the variety of opportunities we will be able to provide for them."

Bonnie West of Jamaica suggested the district look at running L&G as a 6-12 school, allow pre-k-4 students go to either Jamaica Village School or NewBrook Elementary, and make Townshend Elementary into a pre-middle school for fifth graders and relocate the supervisory union offices there. Board Chairman Al Claussen called the proposal "very well thought out."

'The bang for your buck'

L&G Principal Bob Thibault spoke about offerings at his school including personalized learning opportunities, sports, arts programs, Jr. Iron Chef and relationships developed in a small, tight-knit community. He said the coronavirus pandemic caused school staff to reflect on how to become better equipped to leverage technology to improve instruction. They also were said to learn a lot about what may be lacking in students' reading and organizational skills.

"My vision is that we're going to be the best small school in Vermont, hands down," Thibault said. "That's my goal, that's really why I'm here. That's why I left a different high school to come to this place because I really believe in the incredible potential Leland & Gray has."

While smaller schools can be more expensive to operate, Thibault said many things get lost at bigger ones. He thanked the board for deciding to take closure of the school off the table, calling it a move that will solidify a good foundation for future students.

Showing potential career tracks for students with a mix of classes and community experience, Thibault said he wants to ensure every student is either accepted to college or has a job his staff helped them in some way to hold. He described the goal as "100 percent placement in society."

With 32 seniors this year, school officials were able to say what each student was doing after graduation during the ceremony.

"It was very cool," Thibault said. "It was very personal and folks really appreciate that."

Lindsey Bertram, board member who attended L&G and moved back to the community so her children could also go there, noted the price tag of operating the school can be challenging.

"But I think the bang for your buck is a lot more than a lot of people realize," she said.

Long said the district has "a great school" in L&G.

"I'm thrilled that we're still here and we need to fight for us," she said.

Input wanted

The district will be issuing surveys to past students and school families about their experience, and community members about what they would like to see in the future. For the latter group, the plan is to have surveys available at polling stations for the Aug. 11 primary and with absentee ballots. One question asks respondents what kind of consolidated school options they want the board to explore.

McFadden raised concerns about not including an option to explore closing the high school and constructing a new building, although there is space for "other — please describe below."

"Quite honestly, we were going to wait to get through the COVID thing," he added. "And I'm just going to point out now, you don't want to consolidate anything right now and put more kids in one building. That's for the whole board to think about. Let's get real here, people."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.