October 19, 2018

CVSD aims for 2.3 percent spending increase

School administrators look for half million in cuts

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

The Champlain Valley School District is pursuing a budget for the upcoming fiscal year that would increase school spending by 2.3 percent, yet require a roughly half million dollar reduction in expenses.

School District Chief Operations Officer Jeanne Jensen said the district will shave expenses in a variety of areas to meet the reduction goal.

“From what we know right now, no program cuts are required,” she said.

The district is in its first budgeting season since a consolidation earlier this year of five smaller school districts in Charlotte, Shelburne, Williston, Hinesburg and St. George. The budget the district creates over the next several weeks will be up for voter approval at Town Meeting Day in March. A public forum on the budget is scheduled for 6 p.m. Jan. 23 at Williston Central School.

At $76.7 million, the projected budget is $1.6 million more than the current year’s budget. A 3 percent increase in teacher salaries that the school board negotiated with the district’s teachers union in a two-year contract in May is the primary reason spending cuts are needed despite the overall budget increase, Jensen said.

“We did what we did in negotiations, so the ship already sailed on that,” school board member Erik Beal said during the board’s October meeting. “We’ve locked ourselves in this year, maybe in a place we wish we hadn’t. But here we are.”

Board member Kelly Bowen said the benefits of having a settled contract outweigh the upward pressure on the budget. Teacher union negotiations in other communities — like Burlington, where teachers went on strike for four days before a settlement was reached — were more disruptive.

“Yes we have a budget shortfall, but we have an intact contract, we have a good spirit of cooperation, and we have a lot of respect with our teachers and our community,” she said.

Later in the October meeting, the board endorsed a Vermont School Board Association resolution to support Gov. Phil Scott’s proposal to control teacher health care benefits by negotiating them in a single statewide contract.

Jensen said it is too early to predict the budget increase’s affect on property tax rates. However, the Vermont Agency of Education has advised school boards to prepare for a statewide property tax increase of 8 cents per $100 of assessed value. That would offset the 8-cent tax rate incentive the district earned by consolidating (see related story, page 4).

The board chose the 2.3 percent spending increase over several other scenarios Jensen presented in October. An option that would carry forward all programs and expenses without cuts would have required a budget increase of about $2.2 million.

An option to keep the budget flat at the current $75.1 million would have required about $2.8 million in cuts.

The 2.3 percent increase the board chose in between.

“That is an achievable number,” Jensen said.

The budget includes an infusion of $350,000 of funds it has in reserve. The board plans to continue using reserve funds to take the reserve balance from its current $2.1 million to $1 million by fiscal year 2022.

As part of this year’s budget process, the board is projecting a five-year view to strategize budget development through 2022. The longer view will give board members targets to aim for in future teacher negotiations, as well as an ability to prepare for spending controls the Legislature is expected to impose.

“There could be some really ugly stuff coming,” Jensen said. “Let’s talk about where (we) might have to take some actions we don’t want to take, but the state may force us into taking. If we get a surprise, we should be prepared to react quickly.”

Board member Erin Brady, however, argued for retaining current staffing and programs.

“I struggle a little bit with the completely accepted notion that we have to be on a path to cutting,” she said. “I don’t feel like there is a huge public outcry in this district. I think there is a lot of support for the quality of the programming, and that is directly tied to staffing and spending.”

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