Independent Schools Rebuff School Districts' Request for a Tuition Break | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Independent Schools Rebuff School Districts' Request for a Tuition Break


Published May 6, 2024 at 6:14 p.m.
Updated May 13, 2024 at 12:50 p.m.

St. Johnsbury Academy - FILE: STEVE LEGGE
  • File: Steve Legge
  • St. Johnsbury Academy
Like dozens of school districts across Vermont, Kingdom East, St. Johnsbury and Caledonia Cooperative haven't yet gotten voter approval for their budgets for next school year. As the three public districts — none of which operates its own high school — sought to reduce their spending plans, their superintendents asked the independent high schools where they send the majority of their students for a tuition reduction.

But those schools, St. Johnsbury Academy and Lyndon Institute, rebuffed their request. The situation highlights how public school budgets are subjected to voter checks, while private school spending plans are not.

On April 19, Caledonia superintendent Mark Tucker, St. Johnsbury superintendent Karen Conroy and Kingdom East superintendent Sean McMannon sent an email to St. Johnsbury Academy headmaster Sharon Howell and Lyndon Institute head of school Brian Bloomfield with the subject line "Please help us pass our budgets." They explained that Kingdom East and St. Johnsbury voters had already shot down their school budgets twice, and Caledonia Cooperative's budget had been rejected once.
With community members demanding further reductions, "we all find ourselves having to take away from our elementary schools in order to reduce the tax rate demands on our taxpayers," the superintendents wrote. "The only sacrosanct line item in our budgets is the cost of secondary tuition, and most of that money goes to your fine institutions."

Collectively, the three public school districts pay millions annually to St. Johnsbury Academy and Lyndon Institute: 639 of their students attend St. Johnsbury Academy at a cost of $23,425 per student for fiscal year 2025, while 374 students are enrolled at Lyndon Institute, at just over $24,000 per student. That's not counting the additional special-education costs the districts pay to both schools.

The superintendents appealed to Conroy and Bloomfield for what they characterized as a "modest reduction" of $500 per student from next year's tuition rate. They also asked the headmasters to issue public statements of support for their budgets as a way to show taxpayers that the independent schools and public school districts are "partners in the education of their children."

"This is a serious request, and we ask in return that you give it serious, and timely, consideration and provide a response to us," the superintendents wrote in closing.

But that request was essentially denied by St. Johnsbury Academy and Lyndon Institute, two of Vermont's four historic academies. According to Tucker, St. Johnsbury Academy headmaster Sharon Howell set up an April 21 Zoom meeting for the superintendents and headmasters to discuss the request but canceled it abruptly and did not reschedule it. He said he has not heard from her about the matter since.
In an email to Seven Days, Howell wrote that her school has been working with the public school districts "to show support and solidarity for our communities’ budgets." Howell said St. Johnsbury Academy tries to keep its tuition "as low as possible" and raises private funds to pay for school buildings and infrastructure.

Tuition is slated to increase by 7 percent this year, Howell said, noting that St. Johnsbury Academy is "facing the same inflationary pressures that school districts face, including a 16.4 percent increase in health insurance costs, overall inflation, the need to support our faculty with a reasonable cost of living adjustment to help them withstand the same economic pressures, and the need to continue to provide enough resources to meet the growing needs of our students."
Howell told Seven Days that she was "hopeful voters in the various districts we serve will consider the efforts that we and the districts have made in making their decisions on the budgets."

Lyndon Institute head of school Bloomfield did not respond to multiple requests from Seven Days for comment. But in a May 1 newsletter, Bloomfield expressed support for passing local school districts' budgets and encouraged community members to vote in favor of them. Tucker, the Caledonia superintendent, said that Bloomfield said in a phone conversation that it wasn't financially feasible to discount Lyndon's tuition rate, which is going up by 7.5 percent this year.
Tucker said Bloomfield told him the tuition money he receives only covers about 85 percent of the cost of educating students and that Lyndon Institute fundraises to make up the difference.

But, Tucker noted, it is impossible to fact-check that because independent schools in Vermont that receive public dollars don't have to disclose their financial records as public schools do.

"We honestly don't know what goes on inside the financial walls of those buildings because they don't have any accountability. They don't have to report to the [Agency of Education]," Tucker said. "There's no way for us to know what they're spending their money on."

On Tuesday, Caledonia Cooperative voters will vote for a second time on their school budget, while St. Johnsbury School District voters will weigh in a third time. Kingdom East's third budget vote is scheduled for May 29. 

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