Home News and Features MRPS Board Discusses Closing Roxbury Village School Community ‘Squeezed’ by Projected...

MRPS Board Discusses Closing Roxbury Village School
Community ‘Squeezed’ by Projected 24% Tax Increase

MRPS Superintendent Libby Bonesteel, left, and school board chair Jim Murphy listen to members of the public as they discuss the possibility of closing the Roxbury Village School. Screenshot credit: ORCA Media.
“We are at a point where community members are getting squeezed,” remarked Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools board chair Jim Murphy at the MRPS Feb. 7 meeting during a discussion about the possibility of closing the 42-student Roxbury Village School in order to shave $1.5 million off a $32.3 million budget that — thanks to a new state education funding law — will increase Montpelier school property tax rates by 24% and Roxbury school property taxes by about half that amount. 

Going nearly an hour overtime, the school board moved to create a committee “to have a discussion about the future of the Roxbury Village School, including exploring the option of moving RVS elementary students to Union Elementary School in the year 2026 and repurposing that building in a manner that is most beneficial for the town of Roxbury,” in Murphy’s words.

However, the board declined to reopen the budget to look for other cuts and then hold a later vote, an option that the Legislature is expected to offer school districts in a year when projected tax rates are soaring across the state.

Murphy said it was important that this committee was announced before the vote, so “voters are informed that we are being proactive,” before the budget is voted on at Town Meeting Day. While the committee is exploring closing the school in FY26, if the budget is not passed they may need to revisit the idea for FY25.

Roxbury Village School Conversation

“I’m just going to launch into it. Very difficult for me to say. I think we do have a very viable budget cutting option,” said Murphy.

“The Roxbury Village School is about $1.5 million,” said Murphy. “We’ve been watching that school for a while and it’s a wonderful school, and it’s a centerpiece of that community.”

Tina Muncy, a Montpelier resident who served on the Montpelier Roxbury merger committee four years ago, said “the merger committee never promised Roxbury that we wouldn’t eventually bring the students back in. As a matter of fact, we said, if it’s financially a problem, we’ll need to bring them back in.”

Murphy said, with just 42 students, RVS is “a size that’s not sustainable and it’s not growing. Those students can be absorbed at UES, where they likely get services that they don’t get at RVS.”

The tax rates “are going to have the heaviest impact on the one third of people that live in Montpelier that most likely can absorb that difference,” said Emma Bay-Hansen, board member. “Let’s put it to the voters and see what they think, and if they don’t agree with this budget, then they can vote it down.”

“I have to say, a 19% [now 24%] increase in my taxes on a fixed income is ridiculous,” said Muncy.

“As I’ve been going through this process, it’s been a grieving process,” said Rhett Williams, board clerk from Roxbury. “Right now, the families in Roxbury that are part of the school system are having a really great experience. I just wouldn’t want the budget to fail and then be faced with closing RVS in a really dramatic and drastic, speedy process,” he said. “I don’t know what would happen to Roxbury if RVS was no longer RVS.”

“To do the analysis to close a school, it should be ample, it should be significant … I’m like, first to sign up to be on that committee, and it’s my community, and it sucks, and it hurts,” said Kristen Getler, a Roxbury board member. “We need to do this wayfinding on behalf of both communities,” said Getler.

If the budget is defeated on Town Meeting Day, the board will have about a week to change it. “We would hope to have a budget passed by March 30, at the latest,” because March 31 is the reduction-in-force (RIF) deadline in the teachers’ union contract, said Bonesteel.

Muncy noted in a phone call with The Bridge that RVS costs more per student, and it is hard to find qualified teachers. She said closing the school this year “is a real quick turnaround. Because of the teacher contracts, if she [Bonesteel] is going to RIF anybody, it has to be instantly. And that’s part of the problem for next year.”

Morgan Lloyd, a teacher and taxpayer in Montpelier, said “the impact on other families is that their rent goes up. Families can’t afford to come to school in this district anymore.”

“It’s not about how much money the schools are spending. This problem really stems from other problems like the cost of health care,” said Lloyd. “I don’t think we can cut our way out of this problem.”

An alternative to closing could be to de-merge, but Williams said based on the withdrawal process laws, “it’s almost impossible to separate,” due to layers of administration and voting.

Getler said she has reached out to Rivendell and Mount Mansfield to learn about school closures. “We are not sitting on our hands on this,” she said.

Bay-Hansen said that during the merger conversations, there was excitement about programs at the RVS building. “It was like, we could do an early language learner school, we could do a nature-based program out there, that would be for the whole district.” If RVS closed, the building would go to the town.

“There are weights associated with rural families, and families under the percentage of poverty, and all of these things, free and reduced lunch. A lot of that has gone away,” since the merger, said Williams.

Montpelier resident Richard Sheir told The Bridge in an email that he has been asked to front an “organized opposition,” to the FY25 budget. “Keeping the school open during the upcoming year puts us $1.5 million behind dealing with next year’s budget challenges,” he said.

Sheir said the “opposition to the budget is solely focused on closing Roxbury Village School and using the funds as a hedge against further academic cuts,” he said. “So much of this is dealing with the uncertainties of what’s going on with the Statehouse right now. And that’s largely out of our control.”

Potential Legislative Changes to Act 127

Act 127, which takes effect in FY2025, introduced new student weights designed to improve education equity in Vermont, and included a transition mechanism of a 5% cap on pre-CLA tax rate increases to soften the blow for districts that lost tax capacity. The law applied the 5% cap to all districts, not just districts such as Montpelier Roxbury that are losing out under the law.

Some districts saw the cap as a way to get “free money” by adding more spending to their budgets but limiting tax increases to 5%. Those increases in spending, along with myriad other budget pressures on schools this year, led to a situation where tax rates were predicted to rise around 20% statewide.

The Legislature, unhappy with that prospect, is in the process of amending the law by removing the 5% cap, creating a cent-based discount for disadvantaged districts only, and offering districts the option to re-open their budget and postone budget votes. The new legislation, H.850, has passed the House and was under consideration in the Senate at press time.

Four local members of the Legislature attended the meeting and were apologetic about the situation.

“We understand the mess this has caused, and we’re doing our best to fix it,” said State Sen. Ann Cummings (D-Washington). “We’ve lost that balance [in the education fund] where we could, you know, phase in what they get and phase out what you lose.”

State legislators expected a $100 million deficit in the education fund that was not anticipated at the passage of Act 127, noted MRPS superintendent Libby Bonesteel. Added to that, since Act 127 was written, variables such as health benefit costs have increased.

Under the proposed Act 127 changes, the estimated taxes for FY25 on a $300,000 home in Montpelier would be $4,136, a $776 increase from FY24. That same valued home in Roxbury would be taxed $4,384, a $470 increase, before any income sensitivity. “This is higher than it was for the 5% cap,” she said.

Budget Cuts Affect Tax Rates

Notably, with the removal of the 5% cap, budget cuts will now affect tax rates directly. For example, reducing the approved MRSP FY25 budget of $32.3 million by $1.5 million would, on a $300,000 home, save $251 on a bill for that home in Montpelier and $265 in Roxbury. Tax rates are affected by the dollar yield, which is not finalized until May.

The board approved a FY25 budget on Jan. 17. “It’s unfortunate timing, and it also is necessary at the same time,” said Bonesteel. Stowe, for example, is facing a 38% tax increase and may reopen its school budget.

“The most likely place to achieve that is by a closure of a rural school. That was to be supported in [Act] 46, that has been undone by 127,” said Getler, who told the legislators “I think you’re having front row seats to the whiplash that we are experiencing out of 127. And I think it does create a loss in faith,” with “this kind of fumble with 127.”

“It’s not easy to stop midstream on this, and it’s not going to be perfect solutions, but I think that people are trying their best here,” said Rep. Conor Casey (D-Washington).

Phil Dodd contributed to this article.

RVS Community Forum

Two community members will discuss the Roxbury Village School in a public forum next Monday, Feb. 26, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library.

Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools board Chair Jim Murphy will speak in support of keeping $1.5 million for the Roxbury Village School in the district’s FY25 proposed budget. Richard Sheir will advocate for closing the school, removing the line item from the budget, and having Roxbury students attend the Union Elementary School in Montpelier. The event is free and open to the public.