On January 24, 2024

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t matter what Killington wants

Select Board leaders choose to divert voter attention to a known dead-end instead of addressing hard choices for school facilities

By Polly Mikula

The Select Board meeting Monday night, Jan. 22, meant to inform voters about the proposed $99 million bond for a new middle school/high school, but instead sowed confusion. Instead of focusing on the main question: how the proposal addresses the needs of the Mountain Views Supervisory Union (MVSU) district, the meeting devolved from a discussion about tax implications into magical thinking.

About 50 people tuned in (in-person and via Zoom) to hear Ben Ford MVSU board vice chair  and chair of the finance committee other leaders from MVSU present plans for the proposed $99 million bond, as they have done and will continue to do in all seven district towns leading up to the March 5 vote. But attendees Monday didn’t get much of a chance to learn about the project or ask questions, instead being dragged into the weeds of proper formula in a spreadsheet.

Voters most certainly left more confused than ever and with no clear picture of the originating need or the options to solve them (if they made it through the 4+ hour long meeting at all.)

Let’s start with what seemingly everyone agreed on: 1) We all support quality public education, 2) The district middle school/high school is in desperate need of repair — to the tune of 10s of millions of dollars at least — in large part due to lack of sufficient maintenance of the current facility over the past decades, and 3) No one wants to pay higher taxes.

District leaders say they can’t continue to support quality education in the current middle/high school building (indeed, the school ranked second to last in a statewide study of facilities in 2022; and Superintendent Sherry Sousa said sewage had recently back up in the school due to frozen pipes and classrooms were within 1 degree of being too cold to occupy.) So something needs to be done and whatever it is will have a tax impact. A MVSU committee studied options in 2019 and decided that building a new school would be the best return on investment. They have been working on a design and budget that they felt meets the needs of the district community and have now put that plan up for a district vote.

“Real numbers” and the multitude of factors that make estimating future tax impacts impossible

Disagreements are easy to understand given the many unknowable factors when estimating local tax implications, which prevents voters from getting what they really want from leaders: “real numbers,” i.e. the dollar impact the budget and/or bond will have on each of our pocketbooks.

In fact, calculating the exact tax impact of any budget or bond beyond this year is impossible. Both Ford and Selectman Jim Haff, I believe, were genuinely trying to show voters what the tax impact might be, given a dozen factors that could affect one’s tax bill.

Statewide factors such as how Act 127 is amended (which created new student weighting formulas for this year’s district budget and a 5% cap on rates for the next five years) and the base state education rate, simply cannot be known. Likewise, local/individual factors such as changing CLA/real property values and the upcoming reappraisals (in which some property owners will pay less than the 0.52 current CLA estimate and some more), true enrollment changes in the district, whether or not a person qualifies for income-based refunds, etc. cannot be known.

But because we need some way to estimate the impact, Ford and Haff both made assumptions about those unknowns to derive a series of scenarios to give voters a sense of what’s likely. Ford was accused of painting an “overly rosy picture” and underestimating impacts; Haff the opposite, painting an overly pessimistic picture of possible tax rates.

But before diving headfirst into those weeds, it’s important to remember the landscape. Let’s back up: What’s the problem and what choices do we actually face to solve it?

New school? Old school? Leave district?

MVSU, which serves the towns of  Barnard, Bridgewater, Killington, Pittsfield, Pomfret, Reading and Woodstock, operates six schools in the district offering free full-time Pre-K to area 3-5-year-olds (saving those families about $15,000 per child per year). The quality of education and offerings are strong across the district, with Woodstock middle school/high school ranking No. 3 out of all Vermont high schools, according to the 2023-24 U.S. News and World Report rankings. Additionally, the report notes that the AP participation rate at Woodstock Union Middle/High School is 73%. It’s also the No. 1 school in the state for college curriculum breadth and No. 2 for college readiness.

Many folks at the meeting Monday night reiterated the ultimate purpose of preserving this educational quality and some expressed concern that a costly new build may come at the sacrifice of high learning standards or programing.

Other attendees expressed frustration that Ford and the district board presented only one “very expensive” option to the voters and felt “bullied” into accepting it, without discussion about alternative plans. (Note: an analysis of facility needs and funding to study options began in 2016 and there have been numerous meeting and stories published, including in this paper about the developments and options being considered by the board and its committees. But we understand. It’s hard to keep up and many are just tuning into these discussions now.)

So let’s now again explore all the possible options to better understand the range of choices we have as a community.

  1. Do nothing. This will likely lead to the middle school/high school building being condemned in the not-to-distant future. The district could choose to go without a middle school/high school, or renovate or build new at that point.
  2. Make some repairs ($20-$30 million). This option saves the school in the near-term, but will likely come with a high budget line-item to keep up with on-going fixes each year.
  3. Renovating the existing building ($51 million according to a 2019 estimate), not all needs are met, but many voters expressed interest in learning more about these options.
  4. Build a new middle school/high school ($67 million according to a 2019 estimate, now estimated to be $99 million after $16 million in recent cuts).

These cost estimates are not perfect (all estimates have risen significantly since these studies were done in 2019), but the options remain: condemn the building, or renovate it for the short-term, or build new for the long-term.

The middle options, repairing/renovating, at first seem like the prudent choice given the high taxes we face already, but may actually be the worst financially over time as they could lead to us invest 10s of millions of dollars into the old building only to tear it down anyway and then face much higher costs for construction than today.

Higher taxes due mostly to increased property evaluations (which are entirely outside of voter control) may make any additional tax burden impossible for voters to swallow this year. But the problems will remain when we face choices again next year and the costs will only go up (no matter what we choose) the longer we wait.

But wait, there’s a worse choice!
And the Killington Select Board chose it… 

Instead of facing any of these hard choices, we could pretend like there’s a way out. On Monday night, Selectman Haff proposed — and the entire board accepted without discussion — to add an article (Article 5) to the Town Meeting Day ballot asking voters if they want to study the option of leaving the MVSU district and either pursuing school choice or designating Rutland middle school/high school. A few members of the audience cheered. And that’s understandable: who wouldn’t be for lower taxes and more choice?

But it’s not a real possibly for Killington and Jim Haff knows it. Therefore, it’s a disingenuous proposal — instead of bringing us closer to a solution, he’s chosen to play a game. Haff as a bit of fun proving…  what exactly?  Whom does it benefit if we all have to face the same choices with higher costs later?

While Act 46 forced school districts to merge, there is a way for a town to leave a district, but it’s not conceivably possible for Killington as it would require not just the town to vote out but also ALL of the other towns in the district to agree to let us go, and then the state board to allow it. I don’t doubt that Killington taxpayers would vote for this (we had a vote to secede from the state and join New Hampshire in the ‘90s in order to avoid taxes, remember…) but there is absolutely no way the other towns would let us go. Without Killington the district is even more expensive for those that remain in it. Why should they let us out? And even for whatever reason if all six surrounding towns agreed to vote to leave too, Woodstock never would, thus, the plan is dead-in-the-water. The state laws were written to force consolidation, and made it intentionally hard for any one town to upend it.

So, if Article 5 passes, we will simply waste time and money studying alternative education options for Killington students, the results of which will be utterly useless since Killington will not be let out of the district. So what value is it to study what Killington wants, regardless of the context in which we actually exist? It’s an option untethered to reality.

Article 5 will only serve to be a temporary distraction. We will inevitably find ourselves at the dead-end, banging our heads against its wall (likely screaming “but it’s not fair!”) and then will have to crawl back to this same juncture and face the same tough choices, just with higher price tags.

By pursuing Article 5, the Select Board has chosen to prove a “political point” (to whom, is unclear) intentionally sowing false hope in all of us eager to find a lower-tax solution to get out of the mess we’ve helped to create (by not funding existing building repairs and/or not creating a capital fund for an eventual new building decades ago). The “solution” to leave the district, preys on the ignorance of voters and erodes trust in the leaders we rely upon. Leaders whose responsibility it is to uncover and help clarify the best solutions, not cover them up with distracting dead-end games.

The “real numbers” that were the point of contention for the first 4 hours of Monday’s meeting were completely sidelined in 2 minutes in favor of a motion to ask voters to approve the study of this false “choice.”

So now, on March 5, Killington voters will have to choose whether we want to pursue this “path of the ostrich,” head in the sand, hoping the problems will disappear with magical thinking — or face the hard decisions now that will be waiting for us as soon as we are forced to resurface and face reality.

Whether you vote up or down the district budget or the $99 million bond, please vote ‘NO’ on Article 5 — the study of fake alternatives — and join the hard conversations of how to best house our middle and high school students.

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