For Brattleboro town schools, clock ticks on $700,000

Town School Board mulls how to deal with unspent reserve funds on eve of merger

BRATTLEBORO — The Town School Board has a big decision to make, and not a lot of time to make it.

The Brattleboro Town School District - which includes Oak Grove, Green Street, and Academy Schools, as well as Early Education Services (EES) - has more than $700,000 in a reserve fund.

However, all of that money will end up in the hands of the newly-created Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) unless the board comes up with a plan to use the money before the forced merger of the Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney schools takes effect.

“If we want to do anything with that money other than have it absorbed by the merged school district, we need to decide that before July 1,” said Town School Board Chair David Schoales.

Barring judicial or legislative intervention before July 1, the town school boards in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney will disband effective June 30, and the newly elected WSESD Board will assume oversight of the merged district's school budget and school properties.

Decision needed 'preferably' by May 22

On May 8, in the Oak Grove School auditorium, the Town School Board sought input from residents about what should be done with the reserve fund, assuming the merger takes place as scheduled.

Traditionally, according to Schoales, the reserve fund is used for property-tax-rate stabilization when the town school district is hit with an unexpected expense. The Town School Board can use the money as it sees fit without needing approval from Representative Town Meeting.

The exact amount in the reserve fund is not yet known, Schoales said, and an audit won't be completed until August.

Even though the board will likely not exist by the time the audit is finished, Schoales said that “despite some attorneys' opinions to the contrary, this board will fiscally stay in existence until the audit is complete.”

Schoales said that “preferably” a decision on the fund should be made before May 22, when the budget vote for the new school district is scheduled to be warned ahead of its inaugural WSESD meeting on June 25.

There is already about $330,000 from the Brattleboro reserve fund in the proposed WSESD budget for fiscal year 2020.

Since the reserve fund was created with money from Brattleboro taxpayers, Schoales said he believed that residents should have say how the fund will be used.

A range of ideas

There was no shortage of recommendations for how to spend the money.

Board member Andy Davis thought using the money to continue energy efficiency projects at the three Brattleboro schools would be useful, even though the WSESD would own the buildings.

“My feeling is, based upon Town Meeting this year in March, there is a huge interest in doing anything that has to do with energy efficiency in this town,” Davis said.

Resident Kate Wilson agreed, especially with the need for some upgrades to Oak Grove's heating system, plus other needed work on the 80-year-old school building. Such work would benefit future students “no matter who owns the building,” she said.

Resident Cassandra Holloway recommended using money from the fund to hire a grant writer for the schools and other community nonprofits that benefit youth.

“There are needs for families and children that go beyond the education piece,” she said.

Resident Spoon Agave said he believed the reserve fund money should go back to Brattleboro taxpayers.

“We can't give the money to the merged school district and expect they'll have any obligation that they will use it in any way we want, because our voice will be just one of four,” said Agave. “That money belongs to be people of Brattleboro, and it is really unknown how much is needed [by the new district].”

West Brattleboro resident George Carvill suggested the board focus on any idea or project that can be funded before the end of June, because of the complications that would arise from a defunct board putting encumbrances on a new entity.

EES Director Deb Gass floated the idea of leaving the reserve money with her organization, a nonprofit with a board of directors, as a strategy to put the funds beyond the reach of the new district.

School Board member Robin Morgan pointed out doing so might be illegal under Act 60, the state's education funding law.

Board member Emily Murphy Kuhr said that Act 60 prohibits using outside money, such as the unspent reserve fund, to directly benefit a town's schools.

At the end of nearly an hour of discussion, Carvill backtracked from his initial thoughts and suggested doing nothing, thus letting the merged district take control of the fund.

“I think we have to learn and work on resolving some of the animosities, some of the concerns, and learn to work together, not as four towns but as one merged district,” Carvill said. “I really think that there are good, proper, moral reasons for letting this money flow into the new, unified district.”

Since the fund is filled with money from Brattleboro taxpayers, Schoales said that whatever idea is acted upon will have to pass legal muster, so he has been reviewing state statutes, and consulting with the Secretary of State's office to see what course to take.

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