Weathersfield sticks with school choice 

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/16/2021 9:00:14 PM
Modified: 5/16/2021 9:00:12 PM

WEATHERSFIELD — School officials have opted to put off for now consideration of changing their stance on school choice after voters approved the school budget at Town Meeting in March.

At a subsequent meeting, the Weathersfield School Board discussed the possibility of designating three high schools, most likely Windsor, Woodstock and Springfield, which most of the district’s students attend. The budget approved on March 3, by a vote of 249-223, carried a $440,000 increase in high school tuition payments, thanks to the arrival in the district of 16 new students.

To offset the tuition costs, the School Board made cuts to the district’s preK-8 Weathersfield School, including an assistant principal position, a mentoring program, foreign language programs, a four-week summer school, buses for sports and an assistant for the school nurse. Since tuition is a fixed cost that districts without their own high schools must pay, steep tuition increases typically lead to cuts at the elementary level. Even with the cuts, education property taxes have risen by 10% two years in a row, School Board Chair Annemarie Redmond said in the March meeting.

Before the annual meeting, school officials decided they had to consider ways to reduce the cost of tuition. School Board members later this spring discussed whether to designate up to three high schools, which would give them predictable tuition rates, but would still leave the district at the mercy of student numbers when the tuition bill comes due. Their conversation spelled out some of the tensions that districts that don’t operate a school for certain grades can face.

“I think the town proved, by a narrow margin, that they’re willing to step up and approve a budget even with these costs intact,” David Baker, superintendent of Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, which comprises, Hartland, West Windsor, Windsor and Weathersfield, told the board. “But I don’t know how long that will continue.”

Redmond asked Baker how a family could choose a school other than those designated. In districts that designate a high school, a parent can ask the school board for placement in another school, but the district then pays only the designated school’s rate.

“They would have to articulate why another school was needed for their child outside that designation,” Baker said.

Prior to opening the discussion, Redmond stated her position: “If we go this route, we will be giving up school choice,” she said, adding, “I feel like there’s a big difference between having to go to a board and explain why you need a different school and asking for their permission, as opposed to the way it is now, where you can just choose and not have to explain to anybody.”

Since it was just a single year of higher tuition, “I’m not sure that we need to panic,” she said. “I mean, if it were to continue, I guess it would have to be something we would have to deal with.”

It’s also likely that designating high schools wouldn’t save much money, resident Susan Hindinger said. Schools more distant from Weathersfield aren’t necessarily cheaper than the closer ones.

This year, Weathersfield is paying a wide range of tuition rates, from $16,542 to Lebanon High School, up to $20,358 at Hanover High School, district records show. The tuition rates at Windsor, where nearly half of Weathersfield's high school students are this year, is $17,800. The next most popular choices, Springfield and Woodstock, cost $17,014 and $17,850, respectively.

Even if it were to designate three schools, the district would still be paying tuition to high schools, and the fluctuating number of students would influence the yearly tuition bill. Districts that belong to a high school district or that have their own high schools can more easily absorb higher costs. Where an influx of 15 students might necessitate the hiring of an additional teacher, at a cost in salary and benefits of $100,000, that’s far less than the tab Weathersfield must pay.

Although the board took no formal vote, it decided to wait and see what the next year brings.

“I definitely don’t want to stop looking for ways to save money, because I don’t want another budget to have to pass based on cutting things from K through 8,” Redmond said, the only reference in the meeting to elementary school spending. In the meantime, people could start “just sort of throwing ideas out there,” she said.

For example, “maybe we should encourage more of our high schoolers to choose private schools,” Redmond said. Since the state will pay only the statewide union high school average tuition to most private schools, and some private schools cap their tuition at that rate, it would save the town money.

“I think it’s something we should look into encouraging our kids to at least think about, because it is one of the cheapest ways to go,” she said.

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




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