WINHALL — Voters will be asked to authorize the town's school board to sell the building currently occupied by the Mountain School at Winhall to the town for $875,000 during a special town school district meeting on Aug. 2.
If that authorization is granted, voters will then be asked to approve the purchase the following week, on Aug. 9. The vote will be held the same day as Vermont's primary election, and outcome will be determined by Australian ballot. Polls will be open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Voters will also be asked that day to approve of Winhall's withdrawal from the Windham Solid Waste Management District.
Act 46, is the main reason why the school board is looking to sell the building, said Martin Nadler, the chairman of Winhall's school board.
The controversial legislation enacted in 2015 and amended earlier this year is designed to wring more operational efficiencies from Vermont's educational spending, has also provided an incentive for Winhall's school officials to unload the property, he said.
With Winhall about to start discussions with representatives from Stratton, Sandgate and Searsburg about forming a consolidated school district under the legislation, the school board was concerned that if a sale of the building were delayed, revenue from the sale of the building would not stay exclusively in Winhall, but would become divided up between the other towns Winhall might eventually wind up combining with under Act 46, he said.
"If we would merge, all the assets of any of these school districts would become the assets of the new district, so if we owned the building,(it) would become the asset of the new district," he said. "The new district could then dispose of it."
Selling it now would ensure the revenue from the sale stayed in Winhall to help ease pressure on the town's school tax rate, which is currently slightly under $1.73 per $100 of assessed property value for the homestead rate, he said.
The town, however, may not hold title to the school building for long. The select board, which would become the new owners of the 12,300 square-foot facility, hopes to turn around and sell it to the Mountain School at Winhall as soon as possible, said select board chairman Stuart Coleman.
"We hated to have to do it but with this new Act 46 going in, and we join other people, and they join us, they would suddenly own part of our building," he said.
The school can't legally sell the building to any entity other than the town, Coleman added, making the initial move of selling it to the municipality a necessary first step.
If voters authorize and approve the sale of the building, the $875,000 would be paid in annual installments of $79,146 over 12 years. A $25,000 deposit would be paid at the closing following the votes to authorize and approve according to the special meeting warning, assuming those both meet with thumbs up from voters.
The school building is currently appraised at $524,000, according to the town's records. It sits on 8.5 acres of land, which is already owned by the town. The land is assessed at $180,000.
The building used to house the Winhall Elementary School, but in the uproar following the enactment of Act 60 in 1997, which aimed to better equalize school spending across the state in response to a state Supreme Court decision which found the state's previous reliance on local property taxes discriminated against less affluent communities, voters in Winhall opted to convert their local public school into a private one. At the time, Winhall had one of the highest cost-per-pupil elementary schools in the state along with one of its lowest performing schools, according to the Mountain School's website. The conversion from a public to private school — although one which accepted all students from Winhall and nearby Stratton — took place during the March 1998 Town Meeting. The school, which offers instruction from preK-8th grade, currently has an enrollment of 65 students, but is anticipating reaching 70 or more in the near future, said Patricia Stanley, the Mountain School's principal.
The Mountain School's board of trustees is ready to move forward and open discussions with the town on the purchase of the building, said Carolyn Blitz, the board's president.
"We'd love the opportunity to stay here for a very long time," Blitz said. "Our trustees have discussed it, we've voted unanimously to proceed, so we're ready to move forward."
The school would also be interested in acquiring the roughly eight acres of property associated with the school as well, she said. Acquisition of the building would allow school officials more flexibility in making alterations to the building or a possible expansion in the future, and allow more leeway to offer new instructional programming, she said.
The notion of the school district getting the building off its books is one that met with approval from Jacquelyne Wilson, the interim superintendent of the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union, of which Winhall is a member.
"I think it is a good move for the Winhall School District," Wilson stated in an email. "Currently the town owns the land and the school the building. I think it makes sense for the town to be the sole owners, especially as move towards a potential merger in which all assets and liabilities will be shared amongst districts."
The school district special meeting on Aug. 2, which launches the process, will be held at the Winhall Community Center at the Mountain School, and starts at 7 p.m. A discussion of the measure will precede the floor vote, Nadler, the school board chairman, said.