One of Vermont’s independent schools is raising its tuition. Could this cause problems for local public schools?

The Sharon Academy. Photo via Sharon Academy

At Sharon Academy, an independent school in Windsor County, most students’ tuition is subsidized by a generous funder: the state of Vermont.

Like many independent schools in Vermont—otherwise called private schools—Sharon Academy receives taxpayer money to educate students in towns without middle or high schools.

Normally, Vermont law places limits on the amount of public money that can go to independent schools. But earlier this year, the school got the go-ahead from state officials to raise those tuition fees by nearly $1,700 per student from the current year — a move that has officials worried. local public schools and raises fears of a statewide precedent.

“I am very concerned that this could have a significant negative impact on our elementary school’s programming,” White River Valley Supervisory Union superintendent Jamie Kinnarney told state officials last fall. in an email obtained through a public records request. .

Supervisory union school districts serve students in about a dozen towns in Windsor County and two in Addison County. The move, he said, could cost them “more than a quarter of a million dollars”.

The connection between private school tuition and public school services is complex and highlights Vermont’s unique education financing system.

Students who live in districts that do not operate public schools at all levels, called sending districts, receive taxpayer money for tuition at public or private schools elsewhere, sometimes even outside of state or country.

In accordance with state law, public tuition fees paid to independent schools are capped at a figure called the average advertised tuition fee, the average of all tuition fees charged by public schools in the state to out-of-state students. district.

For the current school year, this amount is $15,513 for elementary students and $16,842 for students in grades 7 to 12.

A handful of independent schools in Vermont are exempt from these requirements. St. Johnsbury Academy and Lyndon Institute are not bound by these public tuition caps as they operate regional technology centers.

State law also exempts private schools that meet a set of state educational criteria, the Education Quality Standards, from this cap.

So far, the only independent school that meets these standards is Thetford Academy. But last summer, Sharon Academy began campaigning to become the second independent school in the state to meet those standards — and be allowed to receive more public tuition.

News from the Valley first reported The Sharon Academy plan to raise tuition fees.

Independent school administrators say current tuition limits are not high enough to keep their schools functioning.

“The statewide average number does not reflect the reality of the cost of education in Vermont,” said Mill Moore, executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association, noting that many public schools charge more. tuition fees to out-of-district students than independent schools do.

In recent years, limits on public tuition fees at independent schools have made it “increasingly difficult to cover the costs of education for our students”, said Mary Newman, head of the school. Sharon Academy, in an email.

At the academy, which operates a middle and high school in Sharon, 85% of students receive public tuition, according to the school’s website. In recent years, the school has had to raise nearly $300,000 a year in addition to tuition, Newman said.

By meeting state standards for public schools, she said, Sharon Academy “will be able to set our tuition at an amount that more accurately reflects the cost of our education.”

But not everyone saw that as a good thing.

Last fall, Kinnarney, the superintendent of the White River Valley supervisory union, told state officials that if Sharon Academy raised its tuition, it would hurt the finances of the public schools he oversees.

According to Kinnarney, five school districts in the supervisory union collectively pay the tuition for nearly 120 students to attend Sharon Academy. A tuition hike would force districts to spend thousands more in taxpayer dollars, he said.

“The financial implications on WRVSU member districts are real, significant, and would cause our cost per student to increase to the point of exceeding what has historically been the penalty threshold,” Kinnarney wrote, referring to a limit imposed by the statement on school expenses.

Kinnarney did not respond to interview requests.

White River Valley Supervisory Union school board president Kathy Galluzzo said she was less concerned about school programming than the impact on ratepayers.

“For me and for the school board, the concern is that if tuition goes up, our taxpayers pay more money,” she said. “A good percentage of our children go to Sharon Academy.”

But in February, the Vermont Agency of Education approved Sharon Academy’s application.

State officials “have been impressed that the school administration is committed to complying with the requirements and providing its students with the educational opportunities outlined in the (standards),” wrote attorney Emily Simmons. general of the Education Agency, to the administrators of the Academy.

The school plans to raise its tuition to $18,500 for the 2022-23 year.

“With the exception of one school, Sharon Academy tuition will continue to be the lowest in our region,” said Newman, the academy’s school principal.

She noted that “there are a number of safeguards in place to ensure that an independent school meets (the standards), including financial safeguards”.

But the decision raised concerns about a potential precedent. If independent schools are able to receive more tuition money from the state, some worry it could put public school finances in a bind.

Rebecca Holcombe, a former Vermont education secretary and longtime critic of the state’s tuition system, said the decision could spur more independent schools to follow in Sharon Academy’s footsteps.

“Who wouldn’t apply for that?” Holcombe asked in a text. “It shifts more public dollars from public oversight to private management.”

Patrick Halladay, director of the Education Quality Division of the Vermont Agency for Education, said state education officials have “certainly” discussed the financial implications of the decision.

“If you could go to the extreme, and the 100 or so approved independent schools had to charge $100,000 per student, well, that would wipe out the Education Fund pretty quickly,” Halladay said.

He stressed that the storyline is pure speculation.

“One would assume that if that were to happen, the legislature would get involved pretty quickly,” he said.

Moore of the Independent Schools organization said many independent schools are unlikely to be interested in adhering to public school standards. And even if they are allowed to raise tuition, he said, they will need to be aware of what local districts can afford.

“It’s not like you have carte blanche to set an unreasonable number,” he said. “Because schools need to live in their communities, just like a public school does.”

Corrections: An earlier version of this story omitted two of the cities whose students are served by the White River Valley Supervisory Union and misstated which schools were exempt from tuition limits.

If you want to keep tabs on Vermont education news, sign up here to receive a weekly email with all of VTDigger’s reports on higher education, early childhood programs, and school policy. K-12 education.