Lamoille South superintendent Tracy Wrend says Stowe residents pushing for a quick withdrawal from the three-town school district tend to read enrollment and estimated tax rate data the way they want to see it.
In turn, some have said Wrend’s presentation of data — which she gave to the Stowe Selectboard April 12 — is filtered through a lens of someone who favors a merged district rather than Stowe on its own.
During an interview last week, Wrend did not dispute that.
“Based on the issues, questions and arguments made, I think there are a lot of points that suggest that remaining in a merged district is best,” Wrend said. “I really feel that it’s important that we have conversations about what is best for the future.”
In her presentation to the selectboard, Wrend noted that “it has been suggested that there is a lack of information about enrollment trends from the board. This is untrue.”
Wrend said there are numerous ways to measure the student population within a district. There are opening day enrollments and equalized pupil counts, which is what Lamoille South provides in its annual reports for voters each Town Meeting Day in March.
Equalized pupils are students who have been “weighted” by the state, according to demographic data, in order to provide more educational equity. For instance, an affluent white student wouldn’t be counted as high as a student living in poverty, or one who speaks English as a second language.
The state is currently re-working its pupil weighting formula, and Wrend said it’s the first time the system has been tweaked since Act 60 and 68, the Equal Educational Opportunity Act that was passed into law in 1997 and is the foundation for school funding.
She said it might not look pretty, tax-wise, for Stowe if the town were to become a standalone school district again — a preliminary analysis of the proposed pupil weighting changes suggests a swing of 30-33 cents on the tax rate, depending on whether Stowe is in a merged district or not.
“People feel like students should have a fair opportunity to access education,” Wrend said. “But the implications of this study are pretty significant. And the potential impact on Stowe as a standalone district is an example of that.”
There is also a figure called average daily membership, which is used by the state to determine property tax rates. This figure counts the number of students on a day-to-day basis during a 19-day period near the beginning of the school year.
Wrend said the school district uses the equalized pupil count and opening day enrollment data for annual reports because they are more readily available in-house — they don’t get shipped off to the state, which is at least a year behind in its average daily membership data.
According to her report, using opening day enrollment, both Morristown and Stowe have seen enrollment decreases over the past few years — following a significant increase between the 2016 and 2017 opening days.
Since 2017, Stowe’s overall PreK-12 opening day student population went from 840 to 808. Morristown’s went from 887 to 824.
Wrend said this year’s enrollment “was hugely impacted” by COVID-19, as more families either homeschooled their kids or put them in private schools — 86 students in home study, 27 to Bishop Marshall School in Morristown, and 39 to a mix of other private schools, including six to Mount Mansfield Ski Club and Academy in Stowe.
Jim Brochhausen, a former Stowe School Board member and leading voice behind Stowe leaving the merged district, said those opening day enrollments are overly rosy. He pointed to the Vermont Agency of Education’s online enrollment dashboard, which shows Stowe with a current year enrollment of 791 students, 17 fewer than Wrend’s opening day numbers.
Morristown’s enrollment figures on the state dashboard are even more stark: 769 students, a drop of 55 from the opening day.
Beware of tax data
Another part of Wrend’s presentation to the selectboard seemed to indicate that Stowe’s tax rates would have been lower had it not merged with Morristown and Elmore. But Lamoille South finance director Andy Lundeen warned against reading too much into that.
According to Lundeen’s calculations, Stowe property taxpayers would have paid 9 cents less per every $100 of property in the current fiscal year and would pay 11 cents less if it had been a standalone school district.
On the other hand, using those same calculations, Morristown and Elmore residents would have paid more in taxes (7 cents this year and 9 cents next year) if Stowe hadn’t been part of the district.
The trouble with Stowe residents seeing smaller tax rates into the future, Lundeen said, is these tax rate predictions are based on equalized pupil counts, and this is a very short tail of data, since school enrollments fluctuate from town to town and year to year.
“In those years, Stowe’s equalized pupils had remained somewhat steady and in constant, whereas EMUU’s declined, for various reasons. And that's eye opening to Stowe residents,” Lundeen said. “But it really doesn’t indicate a trend or how it will be in the future.”