MIDDLEBURY — The UD-3 school board will present voters on Town Meeting Day a proposed 2010-2011 budget of $15,967,209, representing a 2.81-percent increase in spending and a potential hike of 5.9 percent in the education property tax rate.
The board made its decision Tuesday after more than two hours of debate on whether to reduce the budget’s impact on taxpayers by further cutting Middlebury Union High School and Middlebury Union Middle School programs, and/or using a substantial chunk of the district’s $512,189 fund balance for property tax relief.
In the end, a majority of board members did not support making further reductions to a spending plan they argued was already frugal and influenced by some factors beyond their control — for example, 1.96 percent of the overall 2.8-percent spending increase is associated with special education. School directors also voted overwhelmingly to use $400,000 of the district’s fiscal year 2009 fund balance for a combined total of four capital improvement projects at MUHS and MUMS, while applying the remaining $112,189 to reduce property taxes.
School officials had taken their first stabs at a draft of the 2010-2011 budget on Dec. 1. The initial, $16 million spending plan featured a potential 5.3 percent increase in taxes.
But the day after that Dec. 1 meeting, Vermont Department of Education officials recommended the statewide education property tax rate increase from 86 cents to 88.2 cents.
“That constitutes a 2.6-cent increase (in the education tax rate) if nothing changes,” UD-3 board Chairman Tom Beyer said.
“I am struck by the fact that the state used federal money to avoid difficult decisions, and is now finding itself squeezing us once again with this increase in the tax rate,” he added.
Beyer noted the change in the statewide rate alone is responsible for bumping up the tax-affecting portion of the proposed UD-3 2010-2011 budget from what had been a 5.3 percent hike to a 6.7 percent increase.
At the same time, Beyer referenced signs of tough times in the economy, and other factors, pushing the board to make what he called “painful” cuts and sacrifices. Among them: Vermont state employees agreeing to pay reductions, Middlebury selectmen crafting a municipal budget featuring no tax increase for the second year in a row, and the Mount Abraham Union High School board working on a level-funded budget (see story, Page 1A).
“Somehow, we are not asking the education community (in our area) to make those same sacrifices in this, which I would argue is a very challenging year,” Beyer said.
“How many people of this board believe that the taxpayers of our communities are prepared, in terms of the times, to support a 6.7-percent increase in the portion of their taxes devoted to paying for the high school and the middle school?”
School directors learned that it would take roughly $1 million in cuts and/or revenue adjustments to produce a 2010-2011 budget with no tax increase. And Addison Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Lee Sease stressed that the district is still waiting for key information from the state to get a more accurate read on the exact tax-impact of the budget.
The UD-3 board on Dec. 1 had instructed MUMS and MUHS administrators to cut $61,764 from the first budget draft to ensure the district does not run afoul of Act 82, a Vermont law that requires a school spending plan to undergo two separate votes if the district spends more than the statewide per-pupil average and if that new spending rises faster than a state-prescribed inflation rate, plus 1 percent.
Administrators on Tuesday announced they had been able to make around $75,000 in reductions, largely at MUMS. The biggest cut: Eliminating the “Core V” alternative education program at MUMS that serves children who have difficulty learning in a regular classroom setting. The teacher who currently operates that program will replace a retiring teacher in another program, according to Principal Inga Duktig. A support staff position within the MUMS principal’s office will also be pared back to four days per week, instead of five.
Some board members suggested the district apply more of the $512,189 fund balance to further drive down the tax impact of the budget. But administrators warned that such an action could make budget planning tougher next year and in ensuing years if there is not as much fund balance to apply.
Meanwhile, members of the UD-3 Facilities Committee were vocal in their support for the $400,000 in proposed capital improvements. Those upgrades include replacement of the circular entrance to MUHS and pavement of the pedestrian walkway to MUMS (combined $240,000); re-roofing the wood shop and locker room at MUHS ($36,000); insulating mechanical rooms and attic duct work at MUMS ($44,000); and replacing the lights at the Doc Collins football field ($80,000, a figure to be matched by football boosters).
Board member Lucy Schumer said the proposed projects are largely aimed at addressing safety concerns and energy improvements that will save district taxpayers money in the long run.
Still, some board members were skeptical of the need to replace the football field lights.
“I feel a need to be sold a little more on the football field lights,” board member Peter Conlon of Cornwall said. “We need to look like we are sacrificing as well.”
“I believe that football can take place during the day if it needs to,” board member Connie Leach of Salisbury said. “Of the four (projects), I would prefer we not do the lights this year.”
Bruce MacIntire, director of facilities for UD-3, said the project is being proposed primarily due to fears some of the light fixtures — installed in 1973 — could fall on someone. He said the light fixtures are rusting and are affixed to wooden cross-members that are rotting.
Board members ultimately approved all four of the projects, which will be warned in a single request and fielded by voters at the district’s annual meeting in February.
Board members are hopeful that voters will approve the UD-3 budget on Town Meeting Day in spite of the anticipated surge in education property taxes the spending plan will require. Some board members noted that Act 68, the state’s education funding law, includes an “income sensitivity” provision that spares lower-income residents from the full brunt of school property tax bills. But it is a provision for which more and more Vermonters are qualifying due to layoffs and salary reductions.
“Maybe (the taxpayers) will see this as a sacrifice we need to make for one year until the state gets back on its feet,” said board member Jerry Shedd of Ripton.