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Barnard Considers School Property at Town Meeting 



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Barnard— Barnard voters took the first step toward keeping the physical property of the preK-6 Barnard Academy in local hands at Town Meeting by agreeing to explore transferring ownership of the school to the town.

Voters easily adopted by voice vote at Barnard Town Hall a proposal by the Barnard School Board that calls for the formation of joint subcommittee of School Board and Selectboard member “to look into” the town owning all or part of the approximately 8-acre Barnard Academy property located near the heart of the village.

The article was drafted with an eye to the possibility that state officials might reject the Barnard School District’s bid for an “alternative governance structure” that would keep the local School Board intact. If state officials do reject Barnard’s plan, the school district will be merged into the newly created multi-town Windsor Central Modified Unified Union School District under the state’s Act 46 consolidation plan.

The issue has evoked strong passions among Barnard residents who are fiercely protective of their elementary school and do not want to see it fall outside local control.

“Let me put it in layman’s terms,” Barnard Selectman Tim Johnson declared in taking the floor before the voice vote to explain the School Board’s proposal. “We own that (property) as community taxpayers … In no way in hell do I want to give it to a school district that is taking our rights away. We should not give it to them.”

The audience burst into loud applause.

If the town does decide to pursue ownership of the property, it would need to take ownership before November, when the state is expected to render its decision on whether the Barnard School District will be allowed to stand alone. School Board members described the possible transfer of school property as an insurance policy of sorts in the event the state forces a merger.

And even if that were to happen, School Board member Carin Ewing Park downplayed the likelihood that the new district would move to close Barnard Academy — at least in the “immediate” future.

“I think we’re positioned well. Our school looks strong fiscally … enrollment is strong,” she said.

To support their case for independent governance while remaining within the supervisory union, School Board member Bryce Sammel pointed out that Barnard Academy has the lowest per-pupil spending and lowest tax rate among the seven towns in the Supervisory Union, even without the 8 cents merger tax incentive the state has provided other towns.

Moreover, he noted, enrollment has been increasing in recent years — it now stands at 82 — leading to Barnard Academy having to hire a full-time pre-K teacher. The school has also added a second weekly gym class and expanded its curriculum — moves which in part account for the increased budget, he noted.

“We’re adding a lot of new things but still remaining really fiscally responsible,” he said, eliciting applause from the audience.

At one point Barnard resident Beth Finlayson, who also serves as one of the town’s auditors, questioned why the new Barnard Academy principal, Hannah Thein, is paid a salary of about $92,000 a year when her predecessor was earning about $74,000 per year, according to the school budget.

School Board Chair Andy Cole answered that an important factor in the pay differential is because Thein works five days a week as compared to her predecessor, Anne Koop, who worked four days per week. Koop retired after 27 years in 2017.

Barnard voters also approved by voice vote a School Board proposal calling upon their elected state representatives and senators to provide information regarding how much Act 46 has cost the state to adopt and how much savings the state will realize from its implementation.

Park explained the purpose of the article “has more to do with our continuing effort to promote transparency … this just isn’t a Barnard issue. It’s a state issue. “

Voters approved the Barnard School Board budget of $1.3 million, which is up 8.3 percent from the approximately $1.2 million approved last year. But spending per equalized pupil is actually falling 1.6 percent to $15,538 because there are nearly three more equalized pupils counted in the 2019 fiscal year.

The Barnard Academy budget will result in an education tax rate of about 74 cents per $100 of assessed property evaluation, or $1,850 for a property valued at $250,000. The approved tax rate is two cents lower than the prior year’s.

Factoring in taxes collected to pay for Woodstock Union High School, which Barnard students attend, the total school rate will be $1.50 per $100 of assessed value, or $3,750 on a $250,000 home. Last year, the combined education tax rate was $1.48.

Following a five-minute break from the school portion, voters adopted the Selectboard’s $1.83 million town and highway budget, up 1.9 percent from the $1.8 million voters approved last year.

Total highway spending is proposed at $1.04 million, an increase of about $15,000, of which $737,000 is to be raised from taxes, the Selectboard’s estimates.

Total municipal spending will be $785,000, up 2.5 percent from $766,000 last year, of which $573,000 is to come from taxes.

The municipal tax rate will increase in fiscal year 2019 by about half a penny to just under 45.6 cents per $100 of valuation, the Selectboard has estimated, so municipal taxes on a $250,000 home will be about $1,125.

Selectman Rock Webster warned that Barnard might need to consider changes next year to how it handles trash. 

The town’s waste disposal operation has been running a deficit, and the board is examining introducing a “fast trash” operation that would shut down the compactor in favor of having residents dispose of waste and recyclables in two separate trailers.

The change would result in “losing an employee, it’s nothing personal” he noted, thereby helping to close the $40,000 deficit the current operation has been running. 

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.