FAIRFIELD — Will their younger siblings be able to attend Enosburg Falls High School?

That was the question asked by two Fairfield Center School students who attended a meeting to discuss the possible merger of the four school districts run by Fairfield, St. Albans City, and St. Albans Town into a single district.

The answer was ‘yes,’ but that for future Fairfield students – should the merger be approved — high school choice will operate differently, and will no longer involve paying tuition.

Fairfield School Board chair Mike Malone spoke about the two types of high school choice, tuition and Act 129. The latter provides choice for students with a resident high school.

Fairfield currently pays for tuition for all of its high school students. Last year, 79 of those students attended Bellows Free Academy (BFA) in St. Albans, 19 went to Enosburg and anywhere from three to five went to other schools.

If voters approve the merger, Fairfield would become part owner and operator of BFA, along with the city and town. BFA would become the resident high school for Fairfield students. Under state law, a school may not both pay tuition for all of its high school students and operate a high school.

Any students enrolled in other high schools at the time of the merger would be able to finish their degrees, with the new district taking over tuition for those students. The study committee asked if it would also be able to “grandfather” the younger siblings of students currently attending other high schools, and the answer from the state was ‘no.’

However, under Act 129, Fairfield students would still have the ability to attend other high schools. “School choice would be preserved,” said Malone.

Act 129 creates choice for students who have a designated high school. Currently, BFA allows 40 students to attend other high schools and two do so. BFA accepts just 20 students from other high schools with designated high schools, such as Swanton students who want to attend BFA rather than Missisquoi Valley Union. The number of incoming students is determined by the board.

No tuition is paid for either the outgoing or incoming students under Act 129.

Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union (FNESU) is also pursuing a merger and superintendent Jay Nichols has indicated he would support allowing the maximum number of students from outside Enosburg to attend the school, in the hope BFA would do the same. Such an arrangement would insure that Fairfield students wanting to attend Enosburg could do so and that Bakersfield students wanting to attend BFA could do so, even if Bakersfield merges with Enosburg and Richford high schools.

Students attending the elementary schools do not count in the Act 120 numbers. It applies only to high school students.

If the parents of an elementary school student wanted to enroll their child in one of the other two elementary schools in the merged district, it would not impact the number of high school students able to attend schools other than BFA.

For example, a student with autism in Fairfield or St. Albans Town could attend city school, which has an autism center and staff with expertise in working with students who have autism. “That’s the type of thing I’m excited about,” said Dirth.

The new board would establish policies determining what kind of choice would be allowed amongst the three elementary schools.

The board also would have the authority to redraw lines for school attendance or reconfigure schools to create a K-4 and 5-8 school. There is no intention to do so, said Jim Farr, chair of the study committee.

Fairfield, Malone noted, is a mid-sized school, making its closure unlikely. He also said it would be unlikely for the state board to approve a closure that would result in long school bus rides for young students.

Farr, who also chairs the city school board, did not think it likely the board would turn down parents wanting to enroll their child in a different elementary school. “Every board I’ve been on has made decisions based on what’s best for the kid,” he said.

Building needs

A merged district would combine all of its assets and liabilities, including debts, reserve funds and ownership of the buildings.

The city school and BFA are paying off bonds. Fairfield and town school have no debts, but Fairfield has maintenance needs, including an upgrade to the electrical system in the oldest portion of the school.

BFA, too, has significant maintenance needs, according to Dirth.

Malone said he felt Fairfield would stand a better chance of getting its building needs addressed as part of a combined bond and construction contract with other schools.

The Fairfield School Board has not put a bond issue before voters because voters were already faced with significant tax increases in recent years, Malone has previously explained to the Messenger.

With bond payments spread across a wider number of students, approximately 2,700 in the new district, versus roughly 320 at Fairfield Center School, the impact on tax rates would be less than if Fairfield were trying to make the payments entirely on its own.

Similarly, the tax impact for BFA improvements also would be reduced. Although students from multiple communities attend BFA, those students paying tuition are counted in their home school district for purposes of determining per pupil spending and tax rates.

To determine per-pupil spending and the tax rate, a school’s non-Education Fund revenues, such as grants and tuition, are subtracted from its total spending. The resulting number, referred to as Education Spending, is then divided by the per-pupil count to determine the cost per pupil.

At BFA, only high school students from the city and town are counted in the equalized per-pupil count. With a unified district, BFA, too, would now be part of a single district with a per pupil count more than three times its current count.

To get to a tax rate, schools compare their per-pupil spending to the base per-pupil spending – now known as a yield – set by the legislature. The yield is projected to be $9,950 next year, with the base tax rate of $1.

If a school spends 10 percent more than $9,950 per pupil, its homestead tax rate also will increase 10 percent to $1.10. If it spends 25 percent more, its tax rate will be $1.25, and so on.

Spreading a bond payment across more students reduces its impact on per pupil spending and thus its impact on tax rates.