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Cabot Votes Again on High School Closing

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Cabot has a history of contentious school budget votes. Google Earth photo

by K. Fiegenbaum, VTDigger

CABOT — Residents to vote — again — on whether to close their high school.

The binding article was added to the school district ballot through a community petition, marking the fourth time in the past 11 years that voters will weigh in on the question.

While school districts across the state are facing a difficult budget season, the one-town Cabot School District is wrestling with an additional layer of uncertainty.

On March 5, voters in Cabot, a rural Washington County town of roughly 1,500, will weigh in on an oft-debated question: should their pre-K-12 school — one of the few remaining in the state — close its high school and tuition out the 40 students now enrolled there to high schools of their choice? An affirmative decision would require the district to make the change for the coming fiscal year, which begins on July 1.

That vote will have a bearing on the school budget, which will appear on the school district ballot at the same time, potentially creating a tricky situation for school officials.

The binding article was added to the ballot through a community petition, marking the fourth time in the past 11 years that voters have been asked to weigh in on whether to close the high school. Petition supporters have cited a desire for more choices in the realms of academics, sports and extracurricular activities for their students.

School officials worry that this time the measure might succeed, and, they caution, voters might be surprised by the financial impact.

Caledonia Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Mark Tucker has spent the past seven years overseeing Cabot and other area school districts. “Look, I don’t live in Cabot,” Tucker said last week. “It’s not my job to make decisions about the future of the Cabot School. That’s a decision for the community.”

“But I do have a responsibility to make sure the community understands that in its current configuration, with the number of students we have now,” he went on, “if you do not want to operate a high school and you want to offer full high school choice to grades nine through 12, it is going to cost you more money than you’re currently paying to operate the high school.”

The school board — which is opposed to the petitioned article — has spent time over the last few years looking into ways to improve opportunities for Cabot’s high school students — including combining its sports program with that of Twinfield Union School. The administration has also crunched numbers more than once on different configuration options for the school.

Earlier this year, in the face of what Tucker called “some pretty dreadful tax numbers,” the administration brought a proposal to the school board that would have asked the community for permission to close the entire secondary school — grades seven through 12 — and negotiate a tuition agreement with another school, likely Twinfield. Such an agreement would have kept school friend groups together at a lower tuition rate and would have included transportation for students, unlike the high school choice proposal on the ballot.

Projections showed that the administration’s proposal would save taxpayers around $435,000 against Cabot School’s proposed pre-K-12 budget. However, the board decided not to act on the last-minute proposal, hoping for one more year to be able to properly consider a variety of options and engage the community in the process.

To operate Cabot School as a pre-K-12 this coming year, the proposed budget — lean from years of cuts — is $4.49 million. That represents a 24% increase from last year’s budget, with major cost drivers including mandatory increases in educators’ pay and health insurance along with an increase in special education costs.

According to projections from the supervisory union, closing the high school and offering full high school choice — as the petitioners desire — would add around $300,000 to $500,000 per year to the annual budget. School district officials have given a range because they don’t know how many of the community’s numerous home-schooled students would take advantage of high school choice.

If both the petitioned article and the proposed budget pass on Town Meeting Day, Tucker said, the school board will likely be legally obligated to attempt to pass a revised budget to factor in the additional costs.

If high school choice is voted down and the budget is rejected, the school board would breathe a sigh of relief, but then would quickly have to figure out if and how spending could be reduced before putting the budget up for another vote. According to Tucker, there’s no place to cut other than staff positions.

Cabot has a history of contentious school budget votes. Over the past seven years, the budget has been voted down sometimes two, sometimes three times in a single year. At least once, the budget was approved with just days to go before implementation.

Since the petition started circulating in mid-December, discussions about the future of the school have taken place in multi-hour school board meetings, in Cabot’s community Facebook group and on Front Porch Forum. Tucker expressed serious concern at the level of misinformation circulating in various forums.

“There’s a lot of propaganda flying around coming out of this ‘close the high school group,’” Tucker said. “I think some of it’s inflammatory and non-factual, but, y’know, it’s free speech.”

While the dollar value of the school budget is important, the resulting tax rate is what has an impact on residents’ bills. School officials and board members often note that state policy limits education property taxes based on income; almost three-quarters of Cabot residents will pay the same tax amount — 2 or 2.71% of their income — no matter the school budget amount.

Cabot is far from the only town struggling with the question of whether to maintain a small school. On March 5, the towns of Greensboro, Stannard, Woodbury and Hardwick will be taking a nonbinding vote on whether they’d like to recommend the school board to close Greensboro’s Lakeview Elementary, home to 27 students.

“This is my seventh budget season at [Cabot], and it’s always an E ticket at Disney World dealing with their budget,” Tucker said, referring to bygone tickets that admitted the bearer to the theme park’s most exhilarating rides. “And that’s fine, but this is like — they’ve created a new category of Disney World ticket this year.

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