November 21, 2014

School budget may raise taxes more than 9 percent

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By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

The Williston School Board reviewed 23 decision packets at its Dec. 13 budget meeting—all of which would have the effect, if implemented, of increasing the school district’s baseline budget, which is already projected to increase 4.18 percent in fiscal year 2014.

The baseline budget, an apples to apples figure which represents the amount needed to maintain the current fiscal year’s level of academic services, is estimated to be $17,317,451—a $695,583 increase over the school district’s current operating budget. The 4.18 percent increase, according to Chittenden South Supervisory Union Chief Operations Officer Bob Mason, is primarily due to a 15 percent hike in health care costs and an aggregated 3 percent raise in salaries.

Last year, Williston voters approved a 1.95 percent WSD budget increase.

The decision packets included a $75,000 proposal for a science coordinator, whose duties would involve implementing a plan to improve the Williston School District’s lackluster scores on the 2012 New England Common Assessment Program science assessments.

Another pair of packets included proposals for two intervention instructors for students struggling in math and literacy in kindergarten through fourth grade—each of which carried an $80,000 price tag.

The most expensive item was a $165,500 request to establish a one-to-one iPad-to-student ratio for fifth- and sixth-graders, who would retain the devices for the remainder of their middle school lives. If implemented in the fiscal year 2014 budget, it would carry forward into the fiscal year 2015 budget for incoming fifth- and eighth-graders, meaning that the measure would ensure that students in grades 5-8 would receive iPad-related instruction in perpetuity—unless subsequently amended by a future iteration of the WSD board.

“It’s a tool. And it’s a very, very powerful tool,” Williston District Principal Walter Nardelli said of the instructional value of the Apple iPad. “Our students really need to have this ability … and they need to be very flexible with technology. It has to be second nature with them, and the earlier we can start, the better off they’re going to be. There’s no question about that.”

The board was in general agreement about the benefits of the proposed decision packets, but its enthusiasm was tempered by Mason’s calculations that even a 4.18 baseline budget increase would result in a 9.59 percent homestead tax rate increase for Willistonians.

The projected homestead tax increase is based on Vermont Tax Commissioner Mary Peterson’s Nov. 30 letter to Vermont Senate and House leaders, which suggested that plummeting statewide student population numbers could lead to a 5-cent increase to the state education base tax rate. Mason’s figures are based on the assumption that legislators will follow Gov. Peter Shumlin’s recommendation that the statewide property tax rate not exceed the rate of inflation and increase by only 3 cents, in the hope that school districts across the state will curb expenditures.

Jeanne Jensen, one of Williston’s four representatives on the Champlain Valley Union High School board, made a cameo appearance at the WSD meeting. She reported that the CVU baseline budget is projected to increase approximately 4.3 percent. Like its primary and middle school counterparts, Jensen said the CVU board is having difficulty reconciling desired education expenditures with the increased burden on taxpayers.

“This is the most divided board for CVU that I’ve seen in 10 years,” Jensen said.

Williston School Board Chairwoman Holly Rouelle requested that Mason and Nardelli, for comparison purposes, put together a potential budget that would increase Willistonians’ homestead tax rate by only 8 percent, instead of the current projected rate of 9.59 percent. However, she warned that such a budget cut could be a rude awakening for parents accustomed to the current level of education services.

“If we did go that low, it would seriously impact what a student’s education would look like in Williston for next year,” Rouelle said.

The next Williston School District budget meeting is scheduled for Jan. 10 at 4:30 p.m. in the dining room of Williston Central School.

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