WINHALL — First, the good news: The number of unanticipated students within the Winhall Town School District seems to have leveled out around 29 pupils, down slightly from last month's tally.
The bad news? That's still an unprecedented increase that poses serious challenges for next year's budget and the small district's school-choice model.
In a spirited, hour-long meeting on Tuesday night, the district's three-member board considered a range of preliminary tax-rate models for next school year, the rosiest of which still predicts an education tax rate hike of about 20 cents per $100 of property value.
That scenario relies in part on the district obtaining a three-year, low-interest loan that would not require an initial payment toward the principal until the school year that ends in 2023, according to Sue Wilborn, business manager for the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union, which oversees the Winhall district. Such a loan would require voter approval.
The model also assumes that the district would draw from reserve funds and that it could claim an estimated $178,000 in federal Coronavirus Relief Fund money to cover tuition payments through the end of this year for unanticipated students whose families moved to Winhall because of the coronavirus pandemic -- an eligible use of such funds, according to a message relayed from the feds to BRSU by the Vermont Agency of Education, Wilborn said.
If the district did not rely upon any of those three sources of funding, its tax-rate hike could exceed 60 cents per $100 of property value, the modeling suggests.
Winhall's homestead education tax rate is currently $1.7725, which means that school taxes on a hypothetical home with a grand list value of $200,000 total $3,545. An increase of $0.6030 -- the figure cited in the least-rosy tax-rate model -- would mean that same parcel would receive a school-tax bill of $4,751, an increase of $1,206.
Wilborn emphasized that all of the models relied on incomplete information and that certain figures will not be known until future dates. The models can be viewed at brsu.org.
The Winhall district's fiscal health is especially sensitive to surges in unexpected students because it pays tuition for students in kindergarten through 12th grade to attend the schools of their choice. Unlike districts that operate public schools, which might be able to absorb new students -- at least to a point -- without incurring additional expenses, in Winhall, each new student essentially represents another tuition bill.
Board Chair Jennifer Samuelson said that she and BRSU administrators have met with leaders of local independent schools to brief them on the district's financial outlook.
One way to relieve budgetary pressure on the district, Samuelson said, would be for independent schools that serve Winhall students to opt not to submit tuition requests for all of those students. "Whether they do that is up to them," she said.
After board member Dean Gianotti, Jr. shared his view that such a commitment from the schools was unlikely, Samuelson floated the idea of independent schools committing to absorb the cost of any Winhall students who enroll after Dec. 1 for the following school year, which could help to protect the district from spikes in new students that occur after the budget takes shape. The district would still be covering tuition for those late enrollees in subsequent years, she noted, framing the deadline idea as a way for independent schools to help preserve a public education model that benefits them.
Samuelson said she personally loves the school-choice model, "but as the chair of the school board, when I look at a 60 cent potential tax increase, I have to wonder what my duty is as a fiduciary."
Board member Meredith Dennes said she thought that the elimination of school choice "would directly impact the independent schools very severely" and that highlighting that potential loss might prompt them to come up with alternative solutions to help stabilize the district's budget and tax rate.
BRSU Superintendent Randi Lowe said the relationship between the district and independent schools remains "symbiotic" but that it is "unclear whether they are going to respond to the requests that have been made or not."
"I think we'll have a better sense over the next month or two," she said.