Thetford Academy ends designation talks with Strafford

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/17/2021 9:19:09 PM
Modified: 3/17/2021 9:26:09 PM

THETFORD — The Thetford Academy Board of Trustees has voted to end its designation agreement with the town of Strafford, though it will continue to welcome students from its neighboring town.

School officials said the agreement, which has been in place since 1975 and would have been up for renewal in June, was no longer of much value to either party.

“Basically, it comes down to that designation really was not serving any purpose for either the school or the students and residents of Strafford,” Giovanni Bosco, chairman of the Thetford Academy board, said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Vermont has had a law on the books since 1969 allowing a school district to designate another school, usually a high school, for its students. Under such a deal, a school agrees to accept students from a community and a community agrees to send its students to the school.

The Strafford School Board, however, routinely grants waivers to parents who want to send their children elsewhere, often to Hanover High School or The Sharon Academy, effectively making Strafford a tuitioning town like others in the Upper Valley, including Hartland, Tunbridge and Weathersfield.

The designation, and Strafford’s habit of granting waivers, meant that Strafford parents regularly had to come up with reasons not to send their children to Thetford Academy, Bosco noted. “There’s a perception that TA was really not being cast in a positive light,” he said. Ending the designation spares Strafford parents from having to request a waiver, and spares Thetford Academy from the appearance of public dissatisfaction.

Communications from both Thetford Academy and the Strafford School District stressed that the independent grade 7-12 school and Strafford maintain a strong relationship. Strafford students have gone to Thetford Academy since the 200-year-old school’s earliest days, and over the past decade, 44% of Strafford high school students have attended Thetford Academy.

But Strafford’s annual report shows that 24 students from the town attended The Sharon Academy this year, while 18 went to Thetford Academy, where tuition this year is $19,670. With its student population declining, Strafford budgeted about $15,000 less for high school tuition next year than it did this year.

The minutes from the Thetford Academy board’s Feb. 11 meeting indicate that the decision to dissolve the designation deal was a mutual one, but Strafford School Board members “felt it was not appropriate for them to be part of a joint statement, since the town, not the board, decides on designation,” the draft minutes say. Thetford Academy’s board voted last Thursday to end the agreement.

Strafford School Board member Sarah Root, who met with Thetford Academy officials this winter, referred questions to the board’s new chair, Aaron Dotter.

“I don’t believe that we objected to the reasoning” behind the academy board’s vote, Dotter said Tuesday.

For years, Strafford has striven to maintain both its designation of Thetford Academy, which provided spots for Strafford students 20 years ago when Hanover High School cut back on the number of tuition students it would accept, and its ability to send high school students elsewhere. In 2012, the Vermont Legislature crafted an exemption for Strafford from the designated school law that allowed Strafford to pay the Thetford Academy tuition price toward Hanover High School, rather than the lower Vermont average tuition, thus making it more affordable for Strafford families to cover the gap.

Now, the district will have to cover the full cost of Hanover High School, where tuition for the current year is $20,888 per student, about $1,200 more than tuition to Thetford Academy. As of January, there were 16 Strafford students at Hanover High School.

If a similar number attend next year, Strafford would pay an extra $19,500 at the current rates, while parents of those students would save $1,200 per student.

“Anticipating that this action might be taken, we have budgeted appropriately,” Strafford school officials wrote in a letter to the community on Friday. “There is no change to the recently approved budget.”

Thetford Academy remains the designated high school for Thetford middle and high school students, and Lyme designates Thetford Academy as one of its three high schools, in addition to Hanover High School and St. Johnsbury Academy.

Strafford will retain a seat on the Thetford Academy board; the Strafford School Board has appointed newly elected member Jessica Tidman to Strafford’s seat.

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




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