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East Haven's School Tax Could Rise, Even Though It Doesn't Have A School

Charlotte Albright
Franklin Higgins, East Haven's town clerk and treasurer, pauses outside the post office where he's been mailing a lot of absentee ballots for voters.

Voters in the tiny Northeast Kingdom town of East Haven will decide Tuesday whether to approve an education budget that would raise their taxes. The town closed its school four years ago, but it’s turning out to be more expensive to educate East Haven children elsewhere than it was to keep the school doors open.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
East Haven has a post office, but not a school.

In East Haven’s tiny post office, Town Clerk Franklin Higgins is mailing out an absentee ballot to a voter. He’s sent out 20 so far. There are only 177 voters. The hot topic on the Australian ballot is a school tax rate hike that many — including Higgins — thinks is too high.

“My taxes would go up $400 almost. We’ve got one person in town, their taxes would go up over $1,300,” Higgins says.

Education costs are rising, not falling in East Haven, even though it closed its school in hopes of keeping taxes under control. That year — 2011 — the population was declining, and there were only 11 students in grades K-6.  Now the town has to pay tuition for 20 elementary students attending schools in other towns, and for 21 secondary students. That’s 10 more high schoolers than last year.

A heater keeps a vehicle repair shop warm in the center of town. It's one of the only businesses here. But owner Andy Deth says families are moving to East Haven to take advantage of school choice. He is willing to cover those costs, because he wants his kids and everyone else’s to have a good education, even if they have to leave town to get it.

“Somebody paid for my education. Somebody has to pay for these kids’ education, so … I don’t know … I could probably stop buying a soda on a weekend and help support a kid, it’s not a big deal for me. But for fixed income people to get a tax jump, it hurts,” Deth says.

Deth says it also hurt a little to see his hometown school shut down, but he’s happy his kids are being well educated nearby, in Burke. His old school now houses a municipal office and library.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
East Haven students attended elementary school in this building until the school closed in 2011. The building now serves as a municipal center.

Another much older one-room schoolhouse is on the tax rolls now, as a veterinary clinic. Owner Sally Schleuter loves showing visitors around a spacious, sunlit clinic in an historic building that used to be crammed with little desks and chairs. It still has a well-worn wooden floor, but otherwise has been tastefully renovated.

“And it’s fun when people walk in, because they remember where things were and where they sat,” she says.

Schleuter doesn’t live in East Haven, so she won’t bear the brunt of the school tax hike. But she does pay property tax on this office building, and she would like to see more businesses move into town. If offering school choice attracts young families here, that’s fine with her.

“I think that it’s really special that it’s still a school choice town, because it just gives kids and parents so many more choices of what’s a good fit. And I do totally believe in a good fit for students,” she says.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
The East Haven Veterinary Clinic occupies what was once a two-room school house.

As a non-resident, Schleuter doesn’t get a vote on Tuesday. And many residents have told Town Clerk Franklin Higgins they plan to vote down the school budget. But most of the education costs are fixed. So Franklin figures the only way to substantially reduce education costs is to rein in administrative salaries in the Caledonia North Supervisory Union. And that’s a budget item over which East Haven — with a school board but no school — has little control.

CLARIFICATION 03/06 While school taxes would rise under the budget voters rejected on town meeting day, education costs are lower than they were when East Haven operated its own school. 

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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