MANCHESTER — Burr and Burton Academy has raised tuition rates modestly this year to $16,250 from $15,950, acknowledging that sending towns are facing unprecedented budget pressure as they try to comply with Act 46's new spending thresholds.
"It is a tougher standard," Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union Superintendent Dan French said of the Allowable Growth Percentage, or AGP.
At this point, it's unclear if the extra $300 per student – a 1.88 percent increase, will push towns that tuition students to Burr and Burton over the state prescribed spending limit.
The $300 extra only applies to students in grades 9-12 which means that there is an additional budget figure for preK-8 students that must be incorporated. "So, it is hard to say if the $300 will cause any of the districts to exceed their AGPs. Additionally, if the preK-8 populations increase or decrease, that too will have an impact," said Brad James, education finance manager at the Agency of Education.
Before Act 46, communities dealt with a spending threshold that was the same across the state but now each town has been assigned a rate at which they are allowed to increase education spending per equalized pupil. Any amount spent over that is double taxed. An unexpected 7.9 percent uptick in health care costs has made it particularly difficult for towns that tuition some of their students to independent schools and still operate primary grades.
The 2014-2015 school year saw the highest tuition increase in four years at Burr and Burton jumping $525 from the previous year – a 3.5 percent increase. Between 2012 and 2013, tuition increased $425 or 2.9 percent.
In October, the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union Board sent a letter to BBA's Headmaster Mark Tashjian, alerting them to the penalty built into Act 46 for excess spending.
"For most of our schools the maximum increase in spending per pupil before the penalty is applied is between 1.28 percent and 1.83 percent. This will clearly create budgeting challenges for our school districts for at least the next two years that this provision is designed to cover," wrote James Salsgiver, chair of the board.
"We all face the same economic challenges, namely, teachers' contracts calling for a 2.8 percent salary increases coupled with benefits going up approximately 8 percent – and we are all committed to giving young people in our community the education that they need in this day and age. We also share the goal of maintaining affordability so our towns are not overburdened with taxes," Tashjian wrote in response to the board's letter.
The Mountain Towns RED can increase education spending by 1.28 percent but they also operate Flood Brook School, a K-8 and have to keep both tuitioning and operating budgets within that range.
Manchester Town School District can grow by 1.83 percent but they have 15 unanticipated high school students that moved in last year. This, plus a decline in overall student enrollment, will more likely impact their ability to come in under AGP than the tuition increase from BBA, according to French.
The 1.88 percent increase is less than half of what Burr and Burton Academy needs to balance the books, according to Tashjian who said that AGP definitely factored in this year's tuition decision.
"The climate has changed under Act 46 and I think people are scrambling to try to figure out what to do – it is tough math for any school," Tashjian said. "When you look at the salary numbers and the health care numbers and allowable growth it flat out doesn't add up and we are very sympathetic to the plight of all the schools in our area while we are trying to figure out our own plight as well."