Tuition costs weigh heavily on Upper Valley school districts

  • Roxanne Turner in front of the Croydon Village school last week. Turner said it was impression that while there people on both sides of the issue in town, but more in favor of the school board’s position than against. And a lot of people originally opposed to the idea came around when they were told they wouldn’t have to foot the full bill for a 30,000 tuition to a prep school, she said. GEOFF FORESTER

Valley News
Published: 1/25/2021 5:59:30 PM

In her 44 years in education, JeanMarie Oakman has prided herself on her mastery of budget numbers.

Now in her 11th and final year at Weathersfield School, a preK-8 public school in Ascutney, Vermont, the principal is finding that sometimes the numbers are the master.

Facing an influx of tuition students, some of whom moved into town because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Weathersfield, and to a lesser extent the high school choice towns of Hartland and Sharon, are confronting the prospect of major tax increases for the coming school year.

In Weathersfield, the addition of 16 high school students over the past year will translate to an increase in high school tuition payments of $440,000 in next year’s budget. The tuition spike has forced the Weathersfield School Board to make substantial cuts in the elementary school budget – cuts serious enough to lead Oakman and others to question whether the town can continue to afford high school choice.

“Right now, our kids get to go anywhere,” for high school, Oakman said in a phone interview. “The bottom line is we pay whatever tuition is, and we can’t control it.”

Several Upper Valley communities pay tuition to educate their high school students, rather than operate their own high schools or create a union high school district with surrounding towns. In addition to Weathersfield, Hartland and Sharon, the towns of Tunbridge, Chelsea and Corinth in Vermont and Cornish, Croydon, Lyme and Piermont pay tuition to send students to high school. Strafford designates Thetford Academy as its high school, but the school board grants waivers to parents who want to send their children elsewhere. Plainfield and Grantham are joined in an agreement to send students to Lebanon High School.

All high school arrangements are susceptible to fluctuations in cost based on enrollment. If a town in a union school district sees its student numbers rise substantially, then the town’s share of the district’s costs can go up as well, to cite one example.

But tuition payments are considered a fixed cost that tuitioning districts must pay. In Vermont, a tuitioning district is required to pay the tuition rate of any public high school. Tuition rates range widely: Hartland students attend both Windsor High School, at a cost this year of $17,800 per student, and Hanover High School, which costs nearly $21,000 per student.

More challenging is a sudden increase in the number of tuition students. Adding in-district students at the elementary level brings more state funds to the school but seldom requires added expense. Adding tuition students brings expense without the benefit of more state revenue.

In some tuitioning districts, high school costs are projected to decline next year. Cornish, Lyme and the First Branch Unified District, which comprises Chelsea and Tunbridge, are projecting lower tuition costs, according to budget documents. Lyme School District maintains a reserve fund to cover unexpected high school tuition costs.

“The number of high school students has unexpectedly declined in the last three years, but there was an increased enrollment in the Lyme School District by 12 students this year,” read the minutes of the Lyme School Board’s Dec. 8 discussion of a preliminary budget.

In Hartland, school officials expect to have nine more high school students next year, Nicole Buck, chair of the Hartland School Board, said last week. In addition, Hartford High School is budgeting tuition for next year at $18,900, a 10% increase from this year’s rate of $17,200.

This adds up to a projected tuition increase for Hartland of $207,000.

“School choice has a lot of benefits,” Buck said, “and some pretty significant challenges when it comes to budgeting.”

The higher student count is attributable to people moving into town, both from within the Upper Valley and from out of state, and to a higher number of incoming high school students than graduating seniors.

“Houses in Hartland, they’re gone in like a week,” Buck said.

A big class of Hartland students finished high school last spring, and Buck said she thought that would lead to a decline in tuition costs, but it didn’t work out that way.

In years past, the Vermont Agency of Education has noted that the fixed cost of high school tuition leaves a district with only one place to cut costs – at the elementary level.

There are some initiatives at the Hartland Elementary School that the board hasn’t been able to advance for the past couple of budget cycles.

Hartland also is being sued in federal court, as is the state, by a family pushing the district to pay tuition to a religious school, which if successful could encourage a further influx of parents seeking tuition money.

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