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TOWNSHEND — Elementary school students in the West River Education District are set to return to full in-person instruction next month.

At the West River board meeting held remotely Monday, the board backed Superintendent Bill Anton’s recommendation for the plan and directed administrators to find ways to offer support to the families who will continue with home study but will need to apply through the state’s program. Six board members voted in favor, two opposed and two abstained.

“Now, I don’t make this recommendation lightly because that does affect about 15 percent of our students who are currently enrolled in school-supported home study,” Anton said. “I don’t, again, look to try to disrupt people’s lives but I do believe that our goal all along has been to try to get back to a sense of typical school, five days a week, and I think we have an opportunity on April 26 to make that happen.”

Lindsey Bertram, board member and parent with experience with home study through the Vermont Agency of Education, said the state program may seem intimidating “but it’s not so bad.”

“It’s really not so daunting,” said LeeAnn Jillson, a board member who also used the state’s home study program.

Anton recommended Jamaica Village School, NewBrook Elementary and Townshend Elementary return to five days of weekly in-person instruction starting April 26. Currently, the district’s K-5 schools are offering four days of in-person learning each week.

All staff who want to be vaccinated will be by the time they return to five days, Anton said.

“We have demonstrated success with our mitigation strategies,” he said.

Air systems in the schools also have been repaired and upgraded, Anton said. The board decided to hold off on returning to in-person learning until air quality specifications recommended by the state were met, creating staggered starts for such instruction within the district.

Anton said with 39 school days left after April 26, teachers can completely focus on teaching students in classrooms. He also touted the social and emotional benefits associated with having classes in person.

NewBrook Principal Scotty Tabachnick and other staff were credited for working on transition plans for families who will begin going through the AOE for home study. The agency will allow the schools to provide material and curriculum to the families.

Some families “felt a little disrespected” because their choice to keep their children home was “very altruistic,” said Tabachnick, citing distancing guidelines and households with people who were at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

Tabachnick proposed the idea of using COVID-related funding assistance to hire teachers or others connected to the schools to act as liaisons between the schools and families. He’s also providing opportunities for students in home study to continue to interact within the school community.

Chris Webb of Brookline said it’s nice to hear there might be some accommodation to help students working from home “so we’re not just navigating it alone.” Allie McFalls, a NewBrook parent, encouraged the school to continue to offer Zoom programming for music and gym if possible.

Jamaica Village School Principal Pamela Bernardo spoke about families who have not engaged with school staff throughout the pandemic.

“This does concern me,” she said. “Where if I say, we’re going back to onsite schooling, that would provide a different direction.”

Eight families in NewBrook and seven in both Townshend and Jamaica have indicated they will continue working remotely, are undecided, or have not yet responded when asked.

Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend can’t expand its in-person offerings until spacing restrictions are eased by the state. Anton said it appears the state might change those in the second week of April.

Board member Ken McFadden expressed concern about the number of COVID-19 cases being higher now than when restrictions were first put in place and sending students back after spring break. He said some students, including his daughter, are excelling with remote learning.

“It’s not broke,” he said. “Don’t fix it. For this year.”

Drew Hazelton, a parent from Jamaica and chief of operations for Rescue Inc., disagreed.

“A year ago, we didn’t know what we were dealing with,” he said, adding that the U.S. now has three authorized vaccines that are nearly 100 percent effective in preventing hospitalization and death, and the state is vaccinating the most vulnerable people. “Let’s get these kids back to normal as quickly as we can and get this pandemic behind us.”

Anton said deep cleaning of the schools, which had been reserved for Wednesdays when the buildings were closed, will continue.

Budget vote

Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham will vote on the proposed $12,115,000 fiscal year 2022 budget via Australian ballot on March 24.

Laurie Garland, chief financial officer for Windham Central Supervisory Union, said school districts were not financially hurt by students being homeschooled this year thanks to the Legislature.

“This was really important,” she said. “The ADM [average daily membership] was not allowed to drop below what last year’s census was so that actually really helped West River this year.”

She called a 10 percent jump in health insurance premiums the lowest increase for the expense in years.

The district’s budget committee recommended using $300,000 from the fund balance or reserves to reduce the tax burden as “a one-year stopgap,” Garland said. The fund balance currently holds $624,183.

The board also reduced one administrator position in response to wanting a tax rate minimally increased from the prior year. The proposed budget is up by about $80,000 or 0.66 percent in expenses. The prior year’s budget increased by 2.88 percent.

The district will be penalized for exceeding a spending threshold set by the state, which is said to be more difficult for smaller and more rural schools to stay below. Tax rates would be 14 cents less without the penalty, Garland said.

“This is important,” she said. “A lot of districts are pushing up against this penalty.”

She encouraged voters to look into the issue and contact lawmakers as they’re considering new legislation to reform school funding.

Tax rates for each town are affected by a calculation conducted by the Vermont Department of Taxes through an equalization study, Garland said. The study looks at how much homes are selling for in communities to ensure property owners are paying equitable amounts in education taxes.

Rates are currently projected to increase by 9.64 percent in Brookline, 2.51 percent in Jamaica, 4.56 percent in Newfane and 0.2 percent in Townshend.

Garland said an income sensitivity program helps reduce education tax bills. Households making less than $138,500 are eligible for property tax credits, according to tax.vermont.gov.

The board has discussed restructuring options for the schools to reset tax rates but those talks were put on pause due to the disruption of COVID, Garland said. The plan is to address the subject again in the spring.

Polls will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Brookline Town Hall, Jamaica Town Office, NewBrook Fire House and Townshend Town Hall, and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Windham Town Office. Absentee ballots are available now.

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