CVU School Board makes tough budget choices1/29/09

No increase for taxpayers

Jan. 29, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Although it was a meeting of disagreements and tough decisions, the Champlain Valley Union High School Board approved a $21.03 million budget for the 2009-2010 school year on Monday night. It is an increase of 1.52 percent from last year’s budget, up from the 0.96 percent quoted two weeks ago.

The percentage hike came from an unexpected increase in special education costs. Despite the percentage increase, the board came up with a plan to avoid passing the additional costs on to taxpayers, who will see no tax increase from the previous year.

From the school’s reserve fund of existing money, called the “current fund,” the board will use $70,000. That money will be tacked onto $365,000 the board had planned to use to renovate the school’s auditorium.

Furthermore, the board’s plan will take another $70,000 from the auditorium project to cover the remaining budget increase and offset taxes, leaving $295,000 for auditorium improvements.

This change comes on the heels of recent speeches by Gov. Jim Douglas in which he called for schools to keep budget increases to a minimum and not change tax rates based on school funding. While residents may see increases in their taxes coming from their local school districts and towns, CVU will not factor into this equation.

CVU School Board Chairwoman Jeanne Jensen called the avoidance of a tax increase a “good gesture” in trying to keep costs down in an uncertain economy.

“It’ll show people that we’re doing our share,” Jensen said.

Board members were split on how to deal with the 1.52 percent increase. Some believed it was already a low increase compared to other high school budgets in the state, while other board members wanted to see the increase kept below 1 percent.

Board member Mike Bissonette, who reiterated his opposition to the addition of two instructional coaches and a part-time Chinese teacher, said the 1 percent goal had to be achieved, even this late in the game. Board member Jonathan Milne agreed, and said funding for the auditorium had to be just as important.

“If we can get (the budget) under 1 percent and get money for the auditorium, we should all celebrate,” Milne said. “I very much want to see that happen and would be very unhappy if it didn’t.”

To get the budget under 1 percent, the board learned it would have to cut $108,000, which Jensen said would be unlikely at such a late stage in the budget process.

The majority of board members were more interested in reducing the tax burden by keeping the per pupil cost at a flat rate from last year. Bob Mason, chief operations officer for Chittenden South Supervisory Union, said the board could apply money it already has on hand and add it to its revenue for next year.

After debating where the money should come from, the board agreed $140,000 would come from the current fund balance — the same place the board has approved funding for the auditorium renovation. The board decided to lower the amount of money it could give to the auditorium project from $365,000 to $295,000. Voters will be asked on Town Meeting Day on March 3 to approve the transfer of the auditorium monies to the construction fund.

Still, the movement of money from the current fund is considered a risky move, since the fund has to be replenished each year, Mason said. It means taxes would likely increase in future years, he warned.

“It’ll give us a big hole to dig out of next year,” Jensen agreed.

Principal Sean McMannon said even with the lower amount of money, the planned two-year auditorium renovation would still be able to successfully go forth. Board member Jeff Parker agreed, saying current construction bids are generally coming in lower than previous years.

“I think we could do pretty much everything we laid out in that first phase of construction,” McMannon said.

Still, there was disagreement from the board on the decision. Milne believed the board was not being “sensitive” enough to the concerns of taxpayers.

“We’re in an (economic) environment like no other,” Milne said.

In the end, the board voted 7-4 to approve the 1.52 percent budget increase, and to move the appropriate funds to flatten the tax rate.

Mason also talked to the board about other articles CSSU residents will be asked to vote on in March. Like they do every year, voters will be asked to approve the purchase of a school bus at a cost of $105,000 and retire an old one. Voters will also be asked to approve an additional $537,000 in leftover construction funds for the auditorium project.