I read with interest Kyle Sipples's guest editorial extolling the Winhall Mountain School, in which he suggests that I "examine other schools that have successfully addressed the issue of underperformance." I have carefully followed his advice. Below is the FY 2014 data for the equalized per-pupil costs and the tax rates in Winhall and Stratton, the two districts for which the Winhall Mountain School assures acceptance of all students (it does not guarantee acceptance from other towns), together with the corresponding information for the St. Johnsbury School District. It shows that the owner of a $150,000 home in Winhall paid $750 more in FY 2014 property taxes than their St. Johnsbury counterpart; a homeowner in Stratton paid even more.
We can also consider the effect of these higher taxes on the different K-8 schools. The Winhall and Stratton School districts pay the tuition at the Winhall Mountain School for children from their respective towns. These districts are charged $13,550 for each K-6 student and $13,750 for each 7-8 student, an amount which covers only the costs of regular education for those students. St. Johnsbury's proposed budget for next year is predicated on a regular education cost of $11,113 per student. If we were to receive the same rate for each student as the Winhall Mountain School, the St. Johnsbury School budget would be $1,600,000 higher than the one approved 5-0 by the St. Johnsbury School Board on Monday night. In short, the success of the Winhall Mountain School is achieved with a high price tag. As that school affirms on the financial-aid page of its website: "excellence costs money."
In his guest editorial Mr. Sipples addresses some legitimate concerns about the system of public education--few of us are not frustrated by its challenges. As he suggests, we should openly explore and learn what we can from examples of success, including the Winhall Mountain School. But the situation is more complicated than his editorial implies. Public schools are obligated to follow laws which independent schools are not. This is not the fault of our children; they should not be blamed for what is essentially an adult problem that needs to be addressed in Montpelier and across the nation. Moreover, students come to our schools with widely varying levels of preparation and needs, and the St. Johnsbury School District is responsible for serving every student who appears at our doors. Private and independent schools are not. Those schools can limit enrollment--that is, not admit new students--in order to keep class sizes and costs down. They can also refuse to admit--or after admission, can remove--students who they feel are unlikely to achieve success. In the recent forum on the Future of Education at the St. Johnsbury School, this distinction was repeatedly highlighted: speaking with legitimate satisfaction about the performance of local independent schools, adults asserted at the same time their desire for fewer regulations from lawmakers. Requirements such as those governing special education are responsibilities--some would call them constraints--which public schools are compelled to fulfill.
I welcome tough questions about the St. Johnsbury School District budget. I acknowledge the Town's expectation that we justify how funds are spent. I further recognize that the our taxpayers will hold the District accountable for improvement in educational performance. But I am concerned about the lack of civil dialogue in our community about these issues, and the often-heard implication that the St. Johnsbury School is abysmal and that the adults who work there are incompetent and irresponsible. We are a school that does many things well. Here is an excerpt from a recent letter from a St. Johnsbury School parent: "All four of my children have had a great experience at your school. Much like the Academy, the key component to their success at your school has been relationship-building. Your school has taught them how to be resilient, how to be tolerant, and how to take on challenges both academic and non-academic. And of course, they have received a great formal education." Just as we should be held accountable for needed improvements in our school, we also deserve support like this for the excellent work we do with the children of our town.
In sum, how can we work together to serve all our students appropriately, offering each the quality education he/she deserves? Educational excellence for every one of our children is a moral and legal obligation. It provides the preparation that all of our children need in order to succeed at meaningful, productive work as adults. It is a necessity for a functioning democracy in which each citizen has a vote and therefore must have the training to make thoughtful decisions. Strong schools are also inextricably linked to improved property values and long-term economic stability; the research on this is clear. As soon as budget season is over, I will invite members of our community to a series of open meetings where we can constructively discuss and ultimately arrive together at ways to better meet the educational needs of all our families and children.
Ranny Bledsoe, of St. Johnsbury, is the superintendent of the St. Johnsbury School.