Board Reviews Recommended School Budget

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Thursday January 11, 2018

Following the holiday break, the school board returned to their work of evaluating the administration’s recommended FY 2019 budget. After alarming potential tax increase figures were released by the Agency of Education in the fall, projecting tax increases of as much as eight percent, the district knew they would be up against some challenging budget constraints yet again this year. Calls from the state for level funded budgets and staff reductions only compounded the difficulties of developing a budget that continues to serve students at a cost the community can afford. Initially, the district projected FY 2019 would bring a five percent tax increase. This draft figure was reduced to 3.23 percent in December and now that the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) and number of equalized pupils has been received from the state, the draft proposed increase has been further reduced to 1.74 percent.

The reasoning behind the reduction is multifaceted as the five components that are used for the tax rate calculation have all shifted slightly since the December 19 meeting. Proposed expenditures are up by 0.68 percent, estimated revenues are also up, by 0.04 percent. The “yield” set by the Vermont Agency of Education is down 3.13 percent, the Common Level of Appraisal set by the state is down slightly at 94.51 percent, and the equalized pupil figure is up 3.97 percent from FY 2018. Should this proposed budget move forward exactly as it is, the owner of a condo at the average value of $231,000 in South Burlington would see a $64 annual tax increase and the homeowner of a single family home valued at $336,000 would see an annual increase of $92. Before income sensitivity and with the CLA, the residential property tax rate per $100,000 of assessed value is estimated to be $1,519, a $28 increase over FY 2018.

At the December 19 presentation, the draft budget indicated $98,000 in administrative reductions, however, board members expressed trepidation around a budget that excluded nearly all of the items they had wanted to include in last year’s budget, but inevitably had to cut as the budget went through three iterations on its way to eventual passage. Board members felt that “engineering” a number ran contrary to their mission of providing a quality education and opportunities to students and staff. Superintendent David Young and Business Manager John Aubin heeded that advice and at the January 3 meeting, presented all of the budget initiatives considered in FY 2018, those that were and were not funded, and of last year’s initiatives that were removed, those the administration was recommending to pursue this year. These include HR support, continued high school and middle school facilities needs assessment, a BCBA behavior coach, safety and security software, Orchard carpet/tile replacement and an Orchard co-teaching position. The need for an additional administrator was identified to provide assistance with class scheduling and training for successors in two key positions at the high school. Both Director of Guidance Tim Wile and Assistant Principal Pat Philips will be retiring at the end of this year and the duo has been responsible for crafting the master schedule. In addition, a .5 FTE communication coordinator is also included in the FY 2019 budget, as the board has heard time and again from the community that they need to have more of a presence online. This position was initially proposed in FY 2018 as a full time position, bumped down to half time in the second budget, and completely cut in the third. The aforementioned needs have not vanished from the year prior simply because they were not funded; the needs persist and have ultimately put pressure on other staff and resources.

Facilities stewardship is an area that has also suffered over the years as items have been deferred in order to keep budget increases to a reasonable level. In an effort to find a solution to this conundrum, a $950,500 bond is being proposed for the March ballot to help pay for some of these expenses. The bond would allow for items to be completed that would outlast the 20-year bond life, the theory being that this year’s taxpayers shouldn’t completely shoulder the burden of funding a burner system, for example, that will last 20 years. The bond would also include $258,000 for safety and security items, $325,000 for a restroom facility at Munson Field, and $150,000 to re-fit the high school library space since the city took a large collection of furniture and books when it vacated in November. The library rental revenue has also been reduced by $64,788, the amount the city used to pay the school for use of the space.

After reviewing the budget in detail, board members offered their thoughts. Steve Wisloski said if one looked at the basic figures of equalized pupils increasing, combined with a lack of increase in staff, and a small tax increase, he would conclude this was a “job well done.” Bridget Burkhardt said that while she felt the presentation provided a good overview, she would still like to revisit the line item budget where potentially hard decisions may need to be made. She also had concerns around allowing for flexibility within the budget for contingency in order to prevent scrambling with staffing needs in the fall due to enrollment fluctuations at the elementary schools.

A special meeting dedicated to the budget was scheduled for January 10 and the board will review and potentially approve the budget at their January 17 regular meeting. For more budget information, check the district website where documents and FAQs will be posted, RETN to view meetings, and the district budget Facebook page.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent