The Stowe Select Board has withdrawn from a longstanding agreement that gave school sports teams free use of the town’s arena and sports fields.
The board voted unanimously to withdraw from a memorandum of understanding with the former Stowe School District, now part of the newly formed Lamoille South school district that also includes Elmore and Morristown.
“It is the norm that municipal corporations with different funds within the same municipal corporation pay for their services,” said Charles Safford, Stowe’s town manager. So, the Stowe town government didn’t charge Stowe schools for using town facilities.
Now, after the school district merger, “the set of users is no longer the same for the school district as it is for the Stowe municipal corporation, and this makes more clear the cost of operation.”
In the past, Safford said, the 2014 agreement between the town and the schools — which renewed annually unless one party notified the other by March 31 — made sense.
“At one time, there might have been an equivalent exchange of services, but that no longer is the case, or appears to be within reasonable striking distance,” Safford said.
The agreement stated that the town and the school district each provided $35,000 in services to the other. An itemized list of town services puts the current-year figure at $47,529, including:
• $35,359 for ice time at Stowe Arena for the district’s boys and girls hockey teams.
• $6,750 for turf time at Stowe Arena for the district’s lacrosse teams.
• $3,670 for the district’s Friday ice-skating program at the arena, which is used solely by children from Stowe.
• $3,320 for Stowe youth basketball.
$1,750 for use of town fields for middle school soccer teams.
• $1,417 for the after-school program, which is no longer operated by the town.
• $105 for the Easter egg hunt.
Board member Billy Adams supported the change, but expressed concern with how the school board might react.
“In other areas, the town pays for services, like electric and sewer, so it makes sense from an accounting perspective to correct it and charge both ways,” Adams said. “My concern is that it would then be an opportunity, as cost-cutting measures go into place in the school district, that if they’re having to pay for it across the board in all towns, that that money might be something they’d cut out, and that’s my only concern with this whole thing.”
Safford noted nothing is stopping the school board from approaching the select board about a discount.
Board Vice Chair Lisa Hagerty noted the optics of the select board making a decision that will raise the school tax rate, not just in Stowe, but in Elmore and Morristown as well.
The merger of the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school districts as of July 1 resulted in a common tax rate across the three towns, which lowered taxes in Stowe while raising them in Elmore and Morristown.
“Are we as a community, in this new district, putting more pressure on those other two towns?” Hagerty asked. “The reality is, their taxes are going up, ours are going down.”
The board also reviewed an email from Tiffany Donza, a member of the Lamoille South school board.
“Ultimately what we are asking for is that you don’t make a decision on whether or not the town should charge the schools for use of the rink until we can have a more in-depth conversation,” Donza wrote. “We believe the school board and select board should engage in a thoughtful conversation about this topic. Rushing the decision could have consequences on taxpayers, the ice hockey program (heaviest user), LAX and the Friday program skaters.”
Donza noted that the school district merger has no effect on the actual use of the town’s facilities.
“We understand the sentiments and concerns about charging the school district, especially since the district has been forced to merge by the state,” Donza wrote. “That being said, please keep in mind that the use of the rink is still serving the same students that it always has.”
Hagerty also noted the optics of the town deciding to withdraw from the agreement and billing the district $47,529, a decision that follows the loss of revenue from the North American Hockey Academy, which last year paid the town $71,750 to use the ice at Stowe Arena, about 30 percent of the arena’s total revenue. The academy was sold and relocated to the Boston area.
“It gives me pause to consider that we are thinking about the loss of money from NAHA as the reason that we are now considering charging the schools,” Hagerty said. “I think it’s a synchronicity thing. In our decision making, I think it’s important that we keep these things separate.”
The board signed off on a request to renew a $1.5 million line of credit for the Stowe Electric Department, allowing the utility to borrow at an annual rate of 1.45 percent interest.
In addition, Safford and Public Works Director Harry Shepard provided an update on how the town is recovering from the Halloween storm.