Budget for Williston schools to require two votes11/20/08

Proposal likely to exceed state spending cap

Nov. 20, 2008
By Tim Simard
Observer staff

Williston School Board members and school officials learned an unfortunate truth last week concerning the district’s budget.

The budget proposal, to be released in January, may exceed the state’s school spending cap mandated by Act 82. Unless significant cuts are made, voters may have to approve two budget articles in March.

“This is so hard to accept at the beginning of the process,” School Board chairwoman Darlene Worth said at last Wednesday’s meeting.

If Williston’s budget vote was held today, voters would have to to decide upon a school budget of $16.44 million, and a second article for an additional $325,000. Chittenden South Supervisory Union Chief Operations Officer Bob Mason said the numbers are rough estimates at the beginning of the process, but it’s likely the two-vote requirement will affect Williston.

Act 82, passed this year by the Vermont Legislature, poses potential challenges for school districts across the state. The state has set a maximum 3.9 percent increase for all districts, which led to the cap of $16.44 million in Williston.

If a district’s budget increase exceeds the 3.9 percent raise, a second vote is required for extra funds. Mason said the increase is determined by the state based on per pupil spending, and could vary annually.

Unless major budget cuts occur in Williston, the district will likely need the two votes to pass what the School Board believes will be a complete budget.

While Williston’s baseline budget — the total cost if nothing is cut or added from the current school year — is a 3.03 percent increase, the district’s revenues have dropped considerably. Mason said a number of factors contributed to revenue declines, including smaller interest yields in the district’s investments in certificates of deposit, changes in special education costs, and requirements for Williston and other supervisory union schools to move some federal Title 1 funds for low income students to CSSU.

In all, revenue dropped 8.09 percent, causing the estimated Williston budget to exceed the spending cap, Mason said.

“It’s ironic that we have the lowest per pupil spending in the (supervisory union), yet we’re the ones with the penalty,” School Board member Holly Rouelle said at the meeting.

Mason said Hinesburg and Shelburne would not have to deal with the two-vote requirement, while Charlotte’s budget is still in the works.

Worth said after the meeting that the reality of exceeding the state’s spending cap would likely require her board to make sacrifices and cuts to the budget. She’d prefer to not have residents vote twice for the budget, but hopes there will be understanding in the community if it does comes down to two votes.

“It’s still one budget, whether there are two votes or not,” Worth said.

Around the county


Other schools in the region are still forming baseline budgets with the Act 82 limitations in mind. John K. Stewart, business manager for the South Burlington School District, said he’s been fully cognizant of the possibility of two votes as he works to form the budget. Already, South Burlington’s baseline budget has come very close to the spending cap.

“We came in at $166,000 short, but there are still factors that could change that,” Stewart said.

Stewart said the South Burlington School Board would have a better idea of final figures by a Dec. 10 meeting.

In the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union, which includes Essex, Essex Junction and Westford, budgets are still being formulated. Grant Geisler, CCSU’s executive director of operations, said Westford’s budget looks to stay under the spending cap, but the Essex budgets are still in the works since voters make budget decisions in April. He hopes Act 82 doesn’t pose a problem, but it’s too early to say.

“Most districts (in the state) will have to deal with the limitations of it,” Geisler said. “We tried to position ourselves so we can get through it this year without having to deal with it.”

Overall, Williston School Board members did not hide their frustration over the two-vote system. Worth said she wants to make appeals directly to the state’s Legislature to change the language and requirements of Act 82.

“We’ll be complaining about it a lot,” Worth said.

“I’ll be complaining with you,” Mason added.