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Voters back tight school budgets

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Posted on March 4, 2010 |
By John Flowers



ADDISON COUNTY — Addison County voters on Town Meeting Day followed a statewide trend in endorsing the vast majority of their 2010-2011 local school budgets, with Bridport standing out as the lone education spending plan to fall at the polls.

Given a sluggish economy characterized by layoffs and flat wages, most school boards delivered spending plans that were close to level-funded and that in come cases featured slight decreases. Still, several factors combined to result in soaring education tax rates in many towns. Those factors include Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) provisions of the state education law that raise or lower a town’s tax rate depending on how close its grand list property values are to actual market values; an anticipated 2.2-cent increase in the statewide education property tax rate; and declining student counts.

A key example is Weybridge, whose school budget featured a 0.95-percent decrease in spending but a 19-percent hike in K-12 education property taxes. Residents in that town endorsed their school budget, but not before considering (and defeating) an amendment that would have reduced the spending plan by $75,000.

Bridport voters, however, reached the limit with their school spending proposal. For the second year in a row, the community rejected its elementary budget, this time by a 179 to 172 margin. The $1,336,975 budget represented a 0.93 percent increase (around $12,000) in spending compared to this year.

Bridport school board Chairwoman Sharon Koller noted that $18,000 of the school budget was associated with debt payment on the school improvement bond that voters passed last year. So without that bond payment, the budget request would have been down $6,000 compared to last year.

“We needed to do these repairs to the building, and that adds to the budget,” said Koller, whose term expires next week.

“It will be tough to find further areas to cut, if that is the direction the school board decides to go,” she said.

Koller believes part of the reason for the budget defeat is “the incredibly tight times for people, financially.”

TIGHT BUDGETS STATEWIDE

It was recognition of this financial hardship that inspired school officials to tighten spending plans as much as possible this year, Vermont Education Commissioner Armanda Vilaseca said through an e-mail to the Addison Independent on Wednesday morning. Those extra efforts paid dividends, he said.

“Most school budgets passed across Vermont,” Vilaseca said. “School boards have worked incredibly hard on this budget, making tough choices and in most cases keeping spending level, or even decreasing spending. Voters seemed to realize this and see the value in supporting their schools, even though the majority of Vermonters do not have children in school.”

In at least one case, school directors themselves proposed some eleventh-hour cuts to their budgets. At Salisbury’s town meeting, school officials pitched a $40,000 reduction in their 2010-2011 spending plan, in light of new information on reduced enrollment projections for next year. Townspeople agreed with the reduction.

All four of the county’s high school budgets passed, though the UD-3 spending plan eked by with one of its smallest margins of victory in two decades. The 2010-2011 UD-3 school spending plan of $15,967,209— which covers Middlebury Union high school and middle school expenses — represented a 2.8-percent increase in spending but a 9.5-percent hike in K-2 education property taxes. School directors opted against paring the budget further, noting that a large percentage of the spending increase was associated with special education expenses, and that the tax hike was largely related to CLA factors and the anticipated increase in the statewide education property tax.

Some voters, including Middlebury selectmen, had warned of a backlash against the budget at the polls. The UD-3 budget passed, 1,070-981, leaving school directors relieved, but cognizant that substantial reductions may be in the offing next year.

“I think we are relieved and gratified that it passed, but we must also take into account the views expressed by a very close vote,” UD-3 board Chairman Tom Beyer said. “The administration will probably be planning even earlier than usual on ways to bring down costs.”

Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny said he was “surprised” that the budget passed, given its tax implications. The Middlebury selectboard, for the second year in a row, offered a town spending plan that keeps the same municipal tax rate. He said he was disappointed the school board did not did not tighten its budget further before taking it to a vote.

In Addison Northwest, voters approved, by an 829-620 margin, an $8.9 million Vergennes Union High School budget that reflected an $11,000 spending decrease compared to this year. In spit of that decrease, declining enrollments in three of the four union schools and the expected hike in the statewide property tax rate is expected to lead to increase in K-12 education property taxes in the five ANwSU towns. Current projections call for a range from a 1-cent education tax rate increase in Panton to an 18-cent hike in Ferrisburgh, with that higher spike in the rate driven by higher Ferrisburgh Central School spending and Ferrisburgh’s low CLA of about 88.5 percent.

In Addison Northeast, residents voted 1,540 to 1,142 in favor of an essentially level-funded Mount Abraham Union High School budget of $13,233,629.

Brandon-area voters on Town Meeting Day OK’d the proposed Otter Valley Union High School budget of $10.6 million by a 1,048-866 tally.

The budget included cuts of $425,371 in spending, or 3.83 percent, compared to this year. But even with the lower overall spending figure, the school tax rate was expected to rise because of the decrease in state aid due to a 7.1 percent drop in enrollment and a 2.2-cent increase in the statewide education property tax rate.

Also passing muster was a Patricia Hannaford Career Center budget of $3,378,719, representing a 1.7 percent spending increase ($56,490) compared to this year. Voters in the 17 towns served by the career center endorsed the spending plan by a 4,622 to 2,432 margin.

John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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