Compass School retains eligibility for state-funded tuition dollars

Compass School
Compass School retains eligibility to receive public tuition dollars from the state. Photo by Joe Milliken

WESTMINSTER, Vt. – After a recent review conducted by the Vermont Board of Education of the Compass School, a private institution teaching grades 7 through 12 located in Westminster, it was decided that the school remains eligible for state funds to educate local school children.

Founded in 1997, the Compass School is an innovative educational alternative dedicated to developing forward-thinking, collaborative, and communicating workers with the ability to adapt and thrive within changing conditions. Over their 20 years, the institution has enrolled students from over 30 surrounding towns in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. They want their students to “get inspired, take risks, learn from mistakes and get invested in their education.”

Back in April 2019, the school had been notified by the Board of Education that it could possibly lose the ability to receive public tuition dollars if the school could not show it was sound financially. It was also believed that the school had lost its tax-exempt status after failing to file proper paperwork with the IRS. However, the failure to file was simply an oversight and immediately amended.

In a hearing before the board, Rick Gordon, the head of the school and also a member of the Westminster School Board, indicated that the oversight had occurred because the school was in transition, having changed accountants, and incurred turnover on its Board of Trustees and business office.

The missing paperwork, a 990 tax form, is required by the federal government because a private nonprofit claiming tax-exemptions from federal taxes must provide basic information about their expenses, revenues, debts, and employee salaries. It is a public document that private, nonprofits must create about their finances.

At the hearing, it was determined that the school would continue to operate and receive publicly-funded tuition dollars, which accounts for about 50% of the school’s $1 million annual operating budget; however, a review of the operations moving forward must show additional positive oversight to satisfy the board’s concerns.

During the hearing process in April, the Compass School had actually lost its tax-exempt status for a two-week period. However, the status was retroactively regained after the school filed the required paperwork.

The school also indicates that the board’s questions and concerns revolved around “policies and procedures” and not about the financial stability of the institution. The focus was on administrative policies and accounting practices, which could ultimately put the school’s financial stability in question.

However, the Vermont Board of Education also requested five years of financial information from the school to assist in determining its financial stability. The board also plans to visit the Westminster-based school sometime in the near future.

According to Gordon, the Agency of Education had also visited the Compass School in May for the five-year re-approval of its special education programs. Based on the state’s visit, it was recommended that the school expand its category of services. They are currently in the process of applying to expand such special education offerings.

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