On August 17, 2022

School board discusses affordable options for new Woodstock Union High/Middle School

By Curt Peterson

At its Aug. 15 meeting, the Windsor Central Supervisory Union policy committee discussed a capital debt repayment policy that is still in the idea stages, according to its presenter, Ben Ford of Woodstock, who chairs the finance committee.

The policy idea was the product of a July joint meeting of the building and grounds, finance and new build committees. The policy committee will study the proposal and work out any changes before the next meeting.

The board recognized concern among taxpayers regarding the impact a new $74 million dollar middle and high school complex will have on tax bills. Board members hope to allay their fears with a policy that focuses on minimizing the burden on taxpayers in the seven “sending” towns.

Taxpayer fears have understandable origins — according to an estimate before Barnard joined the district, financing the entire project through a bond issue might raise education taxes by 30%. Adding Barnard’s students (and taxpayers) reduced that estimate to 25%, which both the board and its constituents still found unacceptable. The new policy would set as its goal a cap of 16% impact on the Vermont homestead education tax rate.

Ford said the district has already enjoyed a windfall — a new state formula for calculating education costs per student will mean $800,000 in additional funds to the district.

Other strategies Ford said would reduce tax impact include using alternative funds such as private donations, attracting increased enrollment, additional state funding, restructuring the debt, future budget surpluses, endowment allocations, possible budgetary offsets, and overall cost savings. All of these strategies are meant to reduce the amount that has to be financed.

The policy would require keeping careful records about efforts, successes and failures relative to the goal, with quarterly reports to the public. It can’t guarantee future education taxes won’t exceed the hoped-for limit, but, Superintendent Sherry Sousa said, “The policy would be a source of constant pressure for the board to live up to its goals.”

Sousa also suggested using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER – Covid) funds to pay for non-structural items that would otherwise be part of the bond, to reduce the debt to be funded.

Next spring the board hopes to pass a bond for $7-$8 million as part of the overall strategy — $2 million is slated for a new roof on Killington Elementary School, $1 million for converting the inadequate heating system in the existing middle/high school from steam to hot-water heating, $2.7 million for soft costs, including architect fees and hiring a project manager for the new complex, and the balance for equipment such as free-standing solar panels that can benefit the existing middle/high school but can also be used for the new building.

Financing the latter in a smaller, separate bond will reduce the amount that has to be borrowed or raised in the 2024 new build bond.

Ford told committee member Elliot Rubin of Plymouth that trying to finance all the cost of the new school with the resulting tax increase would doom approval of the bond by voters, as it has in South Burlington and Slate Valley. He said the Winooski district used more creative ways to minimize tax burdens and achieved bond approval.

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