At the Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) Board meeting that took place on Wednesday, September 23, WWSU director of finance and operations Michelle Baker presented the board with a breakdown of *per pupil spending in the region.
Under Act 46, which will consolidate school districts across the state by 2019, all towns within a supervisory union will have the same per pupil spending rate—as opposed to the current funding system in which per pupil spending differs for each Valley school.
At $13,607, Warren Elementary School has the lowest cost per pupil for FY 2016. At $17,604, Moretown Elementary School had the highest, closely followed by Harwood Union High School at $16,721. Fayston Elementary School, Waitsfield Elementary School, Thatcher Brook Primary School and Crossett Brook Middle School all have per pupil costs in the $15,000 range for FY2016.
Looking at the breakdown in spending for each school across its departments, “It doesn’t really jump out” why some schools’ costs are higher than others, WWSU Board member Rob Rosen of Warren said last Wednesday.
According to Baker, however, “Special education is the largest driver,” she said. “I think that debt is a driver as well.” Currently, Moretown pays $5,257 per pupil for special education, Harwood Union pays $4,696 and the rest of The Valley schools all pay less than $3,000 per pupil for special education.
Per pupil spending is also influenced by revenue. The towns of Fayston, Waitsfield and Warren contribute around $400 per pupil for building use for their respective elementary schools. Moretown Elementary School, Thatcher Brook Primary School, Crossett Brook Middle School and Harwood Union do not receive any town contributions toward building use.
So far, the variations in per pupil spending have been at the forefront of the WWSU’s conversations about Act 146, as consolidation will affect some towns differently than others when costs become shared between districts.
“It’s like going out to dinner with a guy who orders lobster all of the time,” WWSU Board member Gabriel Gilman of Moretown offered as an analogy at a meeting on September 9. “You’re not going to want to split the bill,” he said, speaking to cost-sharing between low-spending and high-spending schools.
Still, one commonality among all Valley elementary schools is that their students will attend Harwood Union High School, whose high per pupil cost “is being driven significantly by the decline in enrollment,” Baker said last Wednesday.
On top of that, for FY 2017 the state has imposed a cost containment provision that allows for no more than a 3 percent increase in per pupil spending. The cost containment provision came “directly from the legislation,” Baker said, as a way to help reduce spending, but “the more pupils you have, the harder this is going to hit you,” she said. “It does hit Harwood Union the hardest.”
In order to avoid a tax penalty for spending more than the cost containment provision allows for ($160 per pupil), Harwood Union would have to reduce its budget by about $800,000, Baker said, although that amount is based on early projected enrollment figures.
In looking at the effects of school consolidation, “Your compelling argument is going to be if you do not save Harwood Union, you’re all going to suffer from reduced property values,” WWSU superintendent Brigid Scheffert Nease said.
*When talking about per pupil spending, the board is referring to the cost per equalized pupil, a number that is calculated by the state based on aspects of the student body such as grade level and special education needs.