Voters questioned a pair of school district articles that would compensate parents of students attending private or independent middle or high schools. With no local or designated middle or high school, Dover pays tuition to families’ choice of schools after Dover students leave the sixth grade. Under state statute, the town must pay full tuition to any public school in Vermont. But the statute also directs the district to pay the “statewide average tuition,” a figure supplied by the Vermont Department of Education, for “approved independent” schools, unless voters authorize a higher figure. If voters don’t authorize a higher figure, parents of students in independent or private schools must pay the difference in tuition. The current statewide average secondary tuition is $13,078, according to school board chair Rich Werner.
Article 3 asks voters to approve the payment of up to $14,875 for students attending Burr and Burton Academy, an approved, independent school. Voters approved a similar article at last year’s Town Meeting.
Selectboard member Randy Terk asked if the article was presented because the other choices, local Vermont public schools, were unacceptable. “Or is it because there are enough people that want this, so it’s put on the warning?
Werner said the school board was following a “selectboard tradition” of allowing articles that had been approved by voters the previous year to appear on the warning without requiring a petition. Philosophically speaking, he said Dover has a long history of supporting school choice. “As far back as the 1950s the town of Dover had a committee looking at joining with Townshend and Newfane, and we’ve looked at other options even since I’ve been on the board. The one thing that always comes back is that we have a great education system because we allow parents to decide where to send their children.”
Dover resident Randy Capitani said the discussion underway had to include Article 4, a similar article asking the town to also approve the same amount “over and above” the state average tuition for students attending any other independent school. “If you support Article 3, then you should support Article 4,” said Capitani.
Selectboard member William “Buzzy” Buswell said he agreed, and he asked if there was an estimate of the cost if one or both of the articles were to be approved by voters.
Werner said the board would have the figures in time for Town Meeting, but he estimated that the increase in cost would add about between one and two cents to the tax rate. Noting his impartiality on the matter, Werner also pointed out that Burr and Burton has accepted any student from Dover who has applied. Selectboard member Vicki Capitani pointed out that Twin Valley’s tuition rate, at $15,000, was higher than Burr and Burton’s.
“I think this article is about fairness,” said Mary Lou Raymo, referring to Article 4. “Choosing one private school where (the district) pays full tuition, but for all others their parents have to make up the difference between the tuition and state average - why wouldn’t you pay as much for them?”
Article 8, the district’s proposed $2,809,618 fiscal year 2014 budget, is divided into two parts. Werner explained that the two-part article was required under a statute intended to expose budgets that have increased over a certain amount over the previous year. “When Jim Douglas was governor, he kept blaming the schools for education costs, and came up with a law that if your budget increase is too high, you have to do it in two articles. For the first time, we have a split budget this year.”
The first part of the article asks for $2,622,005. The second part asks for $187,613. “If Article 4 passes,” Werner said, “we’ll be amending that figure by about $16,800.”
Werner said that the increases in the budget were mainly for things that were out of the control of local board members, including an increase in high school tuition, a 14% increase in health insurance costs, and an increase in the district’s supervisory union assessment. Werner said the district is looking for ways to reduce their supervisory union costs.
“We’d love to form our own supervisory union,” he said. “Dover has a high level of poverty, and we get $102,000 in federal Title 1 money. Under the law, it all goes to the supervisory union – and the supervisory union only gives us $28,000 of our money. But we have no ability to form our own supervisory union – it would take a special law.”
Under the municipal section of the warning, there was even less discussion of the big-ticket articles. Nobody asked about the $1,983,115 general fund budget, the $1,201,248 highway department budget, or $600,000 for two capital funds.
But article 18, asking voters to approve $65,000 for the town’s legal defense fund, prompted a discussion. Noting that the selectboard could use the fund in any way they saw fit, Joan Black asked about their plans.
Selectboard chair Linda Holland said voters would have a chance to weigh in on how the money should be used at Town Meeting.
Buswell said it was time the town decided “how long do you want to be a punching bag for? How long are you going to keep taking punches from the state of Vermont?”
Last year, the fund was used to hire a lobbyist to advocate for changes in education funding. Although the lobbying firm was successful in getting the Legislature to study education funding issues over the summer, Buswell said the effort hasn’t been satisfactory. “The lobbyist is doing a good job, but nothing is getting done,” he said. “An example is the 5- and 6-cent increase in the statewide education tax last week. We have to start looking to other cities and towns in Vermont (to join in a lawsuit). I feel we can prove to the Supreme Court that Brigham is not being followed.”
Holland reiterated that the board wanted guidance from voters. “I think most of the board feels the lobbyist is working well.”
Werner warned voters that the result of a lawsuit may not be an improvement for Dover taxpayers. “Be careful of what you wish for, you might get it,” he said. “We hated Act 60, and the Legislature said ‘Here’s Act 68.’ At least under Act 60 we could control our tax rate (through the Dover Education Fund). We would have to appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court, and the Vermont Supreme Court is the one that gave us the law.”
Werner said there’s a lot of support for statewide education funding in Montpelier, and Act 60 has been held up as the “holy grail” of education law in Vermont. “I like the battleship analysis,” he said. “You can’t just turn it around. I think this lobbying is going to help. Now we can go to Montpelier without being laughed at.”
Buswell disagreed. “When do you get to the point when you say something has to happen, and it’s not happening?” he said. “We’ve been slapped in the face with the (recent) tax increase.”
Randy Capitani said the increase hadn’t been approved by the Vermont Senate, and could still be changed. “We still have an opportunity to work with the lobbyist to change that. Use them or get your coalition built – the tax increase affects everyone across the state.”
Black said her issue was that “Dover seems to be the only one that pays,” although she also noted that Wilmington paid $5,000 for the current fiscal year. “We should not be the only town paying for this.”
When Dover initially approached Wilmington about a joint study, Wilmington officials agreed to participate, but said they had no funding to offer. Their contribution would be in “in-kind” services by Wilmington administrative staff, they said, including the services of Wilmington Economic Development Consultant Bill Colvin.
Vicki Capitani noted that Wilmington’s Town Meeting warning included an article to raise $20,000 to “repay Dover for the cost of financial aid during last year’s flood, and the lobbyist.”