Editorial: Starksboro’s request — will the MAUSD deny it?
In comments to the MAUSD board on June 28, and in a commentary he writes in today’s Addison Independent, Supt. Patrick Reen paints a worst-case tax scenario in a not-so-subtle attempt to sway an upcoming vote on Aug. 9. In that vote, the district towns of Bristol, New Haven and Monkton will either ratify Starksboro’s proposed withdrawal from the school district or choose to deny Starksboro residents that option.
In Reen’s diatribe against the withdrawal effort, he speculates that taxes will go up 17%, which would be for the fiscal year in 2025, the first year Starksboro would not be part of the district. He also claims that opportunities for all students will decline, and that the unified school district could be forced back into a supervisory union.
There are many reasons to take Reen’s statements with more than a grain of salt.
First, Reen admits that his take on the increase in taxes may differ with others, including that of Starksboro’s Save our Schools group that estimates the tax increase would be closer to just under 6%, and that his may be on the high side.
Second, Reen bases his tax estimate on those residents who pay property taxes based on the property value, rather than on their income. It’s a common fact that statewide about 2/3rds of Vermont residents pay based on income, which factors in rebates, meaning that most district residents won’t see anywhere close to that kind of tax increase. Reen neglects to make that distinction.
Third, Reen doesn’t do a projection of the likely tax rate if MAUSD merges with ANWSD, as both school merger committees have approved, as has the State Board of Education. Reen’s entire argument that taxes will skyrocket is based on Starksboro withdrawing its few students from the middle and high schools, but if the two districts merge the combined student numbers will be much higher, which, according to Reen, will save $5 million and drive taxes down. The decrease in taxes because of the merger would surely be far more significant than the loss of Starksboro’s students.
Fourth, Reen projects that only 75% of Starksboro and Lincoln students will attend Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School in FY24, compared to the 90% projected by Starksboro’s SOS. That figure has a determining factor on how much higher the tax rates might be because state aid is based on student body count.
While nobody can know that number, projecting a worst-case scenario as if it were fact is a suspect tactic that borders on creating an undue influence ahead of an election. Furthermore, not factoring what the taxes might be in a merged system — which will be voted on this coming November — is withholding pertinent information from voters that could mitigate concerns of higher taxes.
Absent from any of Reen’s arguments or comments is any sense of community. It is as if the concerns about the loss of community from Lincoln and Starksboro residents have simply gone unheard. That’s not a fair comment, in many ways, as the district’s charter promised district towns their schools wouldn’t be closed unless that town approved such a vote, but under the proposed merged district those rights have been taken away and school closures can happen against a town’s wishes. (See SOS’s letter.)
Lastly, as for Reen’s concern that the school district could be forced to again become a supervisory union, that seems like a red herring considering the state BOE supports the merged school district. Nor did the state BOE force Addison Central School District to become a supervisory union after Ripton withdrew. In fact, the board specifically said it would not do that. Based on both points, it’s more logical to suggest the merged district would not be forced to become a supervisory union.
REFRAMING THE CONVERSATION
At an upcoming informational hearing on Aug. 4 at 6 p.m., both sides of this issue would benefit if the conversation were reframed based on best-case or most-reasonable scenarios.
That projection should include the $5 million in savings from a merged school district in future years, as well as a higher middle-high school attendance rate from both Lincoln and Starksboro if that merged district is successfully run. (This is a self-fulling prophecy, by the way: If the merged district is well-received, more students will attend and the number will be closer to 90%; if it’s not well received, well, there is reason for those students and families to seek other options.)
Finally, it’s clear to see that in Reen’s analysis consolidation is the only solution to the problems that ail MAUSD. Just as WalMart’s consolidated approach drives down cost to consumers, economic scale can save money.
It is a valid economic approach.
But schools aren’t selling merchandise; and community has an impact on how students and parents feel about their school, and how much they are willing to be involved — both emotionally and academically. And what much research finds is that the smaller the government, the more involved community members are. That should matter.
Residents should also question whether economic scale is the only thing ailing MAUSD.
Also important to note is that Starksboro residents have voted overwhelming to keep their community school intact, if MAUSD proceeds with its merger with ANWSU. That right of self-determination is an integral part of Vermont’s character and tradition.
In the August 9 vote, then, the overriding issue for residents of Bristol, New Haven and Monkton shouldn’t be how much taxes are going up or down, but what kind of school district they want their kids and grandkids to attend, and whether Starksboro’s desire to keep its school open outweighs the MAUSD board’s desire to force significant change regardless of the consequences to member towns.
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