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Tuition costs weigh heavily on Upper Valley school district budgets

  • Weathersfield School Principal JeanMarie Oakman said she is disappointed in the Scott Administration’s decision to let school districts dictate their own plans for re-opening this fall. Students in her district have school choice after attending kindergarten through eighth grade in Weathersfield, the differing schedules have made it hard on parents coordinating transportation and childcare she said. “By leaving it wide open, nobody’s doing the same thing,” said Oakman in Weathersfield, Vt., Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Weathersfield Elementary Principal JeanMarie Oakman waves goodbye to students leaving on four buses at the end of the school day in Ascutney, Vt., on March 16, 2020. Under direction from the governor, students will be working from home beginning Tuesday until at least April 6. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley news file photo — Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/23/2021 10:30:07 PM
Modified: 1/23/2021 10:30:36 PM

ASCUTNEY — In her 44 years in education, JeanMarie Oakman has prided herself on her mastery of budget numbers.

Now in her 11th and final year at Weathersfield School, a preK-8 public school in Ascutney, the principal is finding that sometimes the numbers are the master.

Facing an influx of tuition students, some of whom moved into town because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Weathersfield, and to a lesser extent the high school choice towns of Hartland and Sharon, are confronting the prospect of major tax increases for the coming school year.

In Weathersfield, the addition of 16 high school students over the past year will translate to an increase in high school tuition payments of $440,000 in next year’s budget. The tuition spike has forced the Weathersfield School Board to make substantial cuts in the elementary school budget — cuts serious enough to lead Oakman and others to question whether the town can continue to afford high school choice.

“Right now, our kids get to go anywhere,” for high school, Oakman said in a phone interview. “The bottom line is we pay whatever tuition is, and we can’t control it.”

Several Upper Valley communities pay tuition to educate their high school students, rather than operate their own high schools or create a union high school district with surrounding towns. In addition to Weathersfield, Hartland and Sharon, the towns of Tunbridge, Chelsea and Corinth in Vermont and Cornish, Croydon, Lyme and Piermont pay tuition to send students to high school. Strafford designates Thetford Academy as its high school, but the School Board grants waivers to parents who want to send their children elsewhere. Plainfield and Grantham are joined in an agreement to send students to Lebanon High School.

All high school arrangements are susceptible to fluctuations in cost based on enrollment. If a town in a union school district sees its student numbers rise substantially, then the town’s share of the district’s costs can go up as well, to cite one example.

But tuition payments are considered a fixed cost that tuitioning districts must pay. In Vermont, a tuitioning district is required to pay the tuition rate of any public high school. Tuition rates range widely: Hartland students attend both Windsor High School, at a cost this year of $17,800 per student, and Hanover High School, which costs nearly $21,000 per student.

More challenging is a sudden increase in the number of tuition students. Adding in-district students at the elementary level brings more state funds to the school but seldom requires added expense. Adding tuition students brings expense without the benefit of more state revenue.

In some tuitioning districts, high school costs are projected to decline next year. Cornish, Lyme and the First Branch Unified District, which comprises Chelsea and Tunbridge, are projecting lower tuition costs, according to budget documents. Lyme School District maintains a reserve fund to cover unexpected high school tuition costs.

“The number of high school students has unexpectedly declined in the last three years, but there was an increased enrollment in the Lyme School District by 12 students this year,” read the minutes of the Lyme School Board’s Dec. 8 discussion of a preliminary budget.

In Hartland, school officials expect to have nine more high school students next year, Nicole Buck, chair of the Hartland School Board, said last week. In addition, Hartford High School is budgeting tuition for next year at $18,900, a 10% increase from this year’s rate of $17,200.

This adds up to a projected tuition increase for Hartland of $207,000.

“School choice has a lot of benefits,” Buck said, “and some pretty significant challenges when it comes to budgeting.”

The higher student count is attributable to people moving into town, both from within the Upper Valley and from out of state, and to a higher number of incoming high school students than graduating seniors.

“Houses in Hartland, they’re gone in like a week,” Buck said.

A big class of Hartland students finished high school last spring, and Buck said she thought that would lead to a decline in tuition costs, but it didn’t work out that way.

In years past, the Vermont Agency of Education has noted that the fixed cost of high school tuition leaves a district with only one place to cut costs — at the elementary level.

“We as a board have made a commitment to our K-8 program that we will not sacrifice our K-8 students because we’re a tuitioning town,” Buck said.

However, there are some initiatives at the Hartland Elementary School that the board hasn’t been able to advance for the past couple of budget cycles, Buck said. They involve personnel, said Buck, who declined to describe them further.

Hartland also is being sued in federal court, as is the state, by a family pushing the district to pay tuition to a religious school, which if successful could encourage a further influx of parents seeking tuition money. “It is a concern,” Buck said.

In Sharon, the proposed school budget carries a tuition increase of around $185,000, attributable both to an increase in the number of students, seven or eight, and higher tuition at Hartford High, which many Sharon students attend. School Board members have had to hold the line on elementary school programs, said Don Shaw, a longtime board member and the current chairman.

“We’ve had to be real lean this year at the elementary (school), because that’s the only place we had control of,” Shaw said. “I would have liked to have had a little more foreign language, but we had to cut that back,” he said. Plans to expand the art and music programs also are on hold.

Those cuts are meager compared to what Weathersfield has had to do. A plan to replace Oakman with a principal and an assistant has been cut back to a single principal, a savings of $114,000, School Board Chair Annemarie Redmond said. A mentoring program that helps younger children learn to manage their emotions was cut, saving $24,000. Foreign language programs were cut out to save $26,900. A four-week summer school program, $10,000. Buses for athletics, $2,000 to $3,000. An assistant for the school nurse, $24,000.

That still leaves a substantial budget increase, but to cut further would mean removing a teaching position, which would drop the school below state standards for class size.

“The whole athletics program is somewhere around $40,000,” Redmond said. “That’s another option.” She also noted that the state doesn’t require busing, but then students would have to rely on rides to and from school.

“All these things are things we don’t want to do,” Redmond said. She plans to bring up school choice at Town Meeting, which board members are considering delaying until April. Under state law, the town could designate up to three local high schools. Most Weathersfield students choose to go to Windsor or Springfield, with Woodstock a popular option as well.

Oakman urged this option on the School Board at the most recent meeting, she said.

“I want the community and the School Board to realize this is not a one-shot problem,” she said, noting that the tax increase is on the order of 10%. “They have to understand that there’s a cost involved and they are going to have to pay that cost.”

“Here’s the bottom line,” Oakman said. “Who gets impacted? The babies, my K-8 kids.”

Even with the cuts, Oakman is concerned that the school budget in Weathersfield might not pass. She keeps track of the votes: Last year it passed by eight votes; the year before by 16; and the year before that by 23. She sees the narrowing margin as a sign that people are finding it hard to pay their taxes.

“If the budget goes down, I’m not going to take it personal,” she said. “The reality is you’re going to have to look at school choice at some point.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

Valley News

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