Ruling on The Sharon Academy loosens reins on tuition for schools across Vermont

  • Sharon Academy's 27 graduating seniors join the procession to their graduation ceremony in Sharon, Vt., Sunday, June 17, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/2/2022 2:32:37 PM
Modified: 4/2/2022 2:33:59 PM

SHARON — Vermont’s Agency of Education has granted The Sharon Academy, and by extension other independent schools, the ability to receive public funding at whatever tuition rate it chooses to set.

Currently, the school can set its tuition at whatever rate it wants, but the state will pay only the “average announced tuition” for students attending from towns that don’t have their own middle or high schools. This year, that amount is $16,842, and The Sharon Academy has kept its tuition at the state rate so families wouldn’t have to pay more out of pocket. The state’s decision clears the way for a planned tuition rate of $18,500 for the coming school year, an increase of nearly 10%.

The Agency of Education’s decision to designate The Sharon Academy as a school that meets the state’s education quality standards (EQS) means it can charge what it wants in tuition and receive full reimbursement for students who attend from tuitioning towns. The vast majority of the school’s student body of around 160 are from towns that don’t have their own grade 7-12 schools and therefore pay tuition, among them Sharon, Strafford, Tunbridge, Chelsea, Corinth and Hartland.

“The school’s leadership affirmed that the school is compliant with or close to compliance with many of the EQS requirements,” Agency of Education General Counsel Emily Simmons wrote in a Feb. 23 letter to The Sharon Academy’s lawyers. “It is the Agency’s determination that TSA should be designated an independent school meeting EQS in the 2022-2023 school year so that the school can access additional tuition funds to support the work it will undertake to substantially meet the EQS.”

Exactly what the school needs to do to meet those standards is unclear. Mary Newman, The Sharon Academy’s head of school, did not return messages Friday.

Officials at The Sharon Academy began to inquire about meeting the education quality standards in the fall of 2020, state records show. At the time, Andrew Lane, head of The Sharon Academy’s middle school, noted in a message to a state education official that “the two obstacles that would currently stand in our way are teacher and administrator certifications (while most are certified, not all are in all areas they teach), and in special education categories and services.”

After that initial inquiry, The Sharon Academy continued to press its case. Newman testified before the House Education Committee last April in hopes of getting state law changed to include her school in the education quality standards program. In a written exhibit, Newman argued that the state’s averaged announced tuition wasn’t sufficient to cover the school’s expenses. “Because the AAT provides inadequate funding, we must raise $275,000 through our annual fund and charge each student a $650 (MS) or $750 (HS) annual activities fee” to meet the school’s budget.

The Legislature has not taken up the school’s proposal.

Last May, Newman again pressed state education officials to certify that the school was a participant in the education quality standards program and therefore was eligible to receive higher tuition payments. Lawyers for the school renewed the appeal with a letter in August to Patrick Halladay, director of educational quality at the AOE.

“An independent school is automatically ‘meeting’ EQS once it begins participating in this process — regardless of whether it meets the substantive standards” set out in state law, lawyers Ron Shems and Nicholas Low, of the Montpelier firm Tarrant, Gillies, Richardson and Shems, told the state.

The state’s response clears the way for The Sharon Academy and any other independent schools to engage in the education quality standards process, which was designed by state law in 2015 with public schools in mind, and then assert that they are substantially meeting the standards. The state’s approval of The Sharon Academy’s proposal suggests there are some limits.

“The Agency takes the position that EQS designation is not to be awarded simply because an independent school has commenced to participate in the EQS process, but that some further assurance is needed to confirm that the independent school will continue to successfully participate in the process, and that the school will substantially meet the standards,” Simmons wrote in her letter.

She also noted that the AOE has a duty to ensure that extra tuition money would be spent on providing opportunities equal to other schools that meet the standards. “Importantly, because there is no upper limit on the amount an independent school meeting EQS may charge to sending school districts, it is important for the Agency to obtain some evidence that TSA will be able and willing to make changes required to be in substantial compliance” with the standards.

Vermont has more than 100 approved independent schools. It’s unclear whether any will follow in The Sharon Academy’s footsteps.

“I really don’t know,” said Mill Moore, executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association and a Hartland resident. Moore said his organization had no hand in The Sharon Academy’s efforts and that he hadn’t looked closely enough at the issue to comment on it.

The process the state has set up does call for some verification, in the form of site visits and audits of a selection of schools each year. Since The Sharon Academy is the only school to gain such an approval for next year, a site visit is possible, but if many more independent schools apply, the state wouldn’t have sufficient staffing to visit and check them all for compliance, Halladay said Friday.

Other schools that follow this route could charge higher tuition that taxpayers would be required to pay. It’s unclear whether state officials have quantified the potential cost.

“The fact is there are lots of other schools that could do it,” Halladay said, adding that he works in education standards, not school finance. “We don’t know what the hit will be.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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