The tiny town of Guildhall is losing its elementary school. On Tuesday, voters decided by a wide margin to close it in the face of declining enrollment.
A tightly-knit Essex County community on Vermont’s eastern border, Guildhall has no high school. Its elementary school has only 20 students in grades K-5 this year, and by 2018 there will probably be only 10.
Per-pupil costs would then be expected to rise from about $12,000 to almost $20,000, with the residential tax rate skyrocketing as well. Caledonia Essex Supervisory Union Superintendent Michael Clark says debate was civil about this looming problem and about 40 percent of the voters cast ballots.
“I think it was a really challenging evening for the community because they absolutely love their school. So with their hearts they want to keep it open. But financially with their pocketbooks they can’t,” Clark said.
Sixty-three voted to close the school, and nine voted to keep it open. If Guildhall parents choose another public school for next year, the town will cover full tuition. If they choose a private school, the town will pay the average cost per-pupil set by the state.
But the future is hard to predict when it comes to school funding. Consider, for example, another small Northeast Kingdom town that closed its school this year. East Haven now spends more money on education than it did when it operated a school, because a lot of new families moved in to benefit from school choice. That’s expanded the tax base, says Town Clerk Franklin Higgins. But it’s also created an unexpected deficit.
“The not so good part of it is it means we have more students now and we have to pay more tuition,” Higgins said.
It’s too soon to tell whether that will happen in Guildhall. And the future is uncertain in other ways as well. The rules for implementing Act 46 — the new school consolidation law — have not yet been fully written. So the fate of many small schools hangs in the balance, as Vermont struggles to rein in education costs.