New school district increases costs, reduces taxes for most

By Jess Wisloski

Observer staff

When the first school budget vote in the history of the newly assembled Champlain Valley School District’s board of directors took place on Jan. 17, a noticeable increase of $5 million in spending was approved — totaling a budget of $75.1 million for the 2017-18 school year.

That’s up from previous years of being separate districts, according to board documents, and up 7 percent from the $70 million in spending previously across the current five districts — Williston, Hinesburg, Shelburne, St. George and Charlotte. It was the number seen on presentations last spring at public meetings during the exploratory process,  once referred to widely by the study group that was investigating whether Act 46 would be beneficial.

For most communities involved in the new Champlain Valley School District (CVSD), the cost per pupil, which determines the state tax rate, also went up: the new budget has a $15,409 per-pupil cost. That’s a jump from the 2016-17 school year in which the spending per equalized pupil had been lower for most of the school districts: $14,277 in Williston; $14,783 in Hinesburg; $14,271 in Shelburne; $14,510 for CVU students, and $16,014 in Charlotte and $16,570 in St. George. (Data which came from a 2016 presentation by the CSSU Act 46 Study Committee.)

Yet, across the board, with Williston being the exception, property taxes will go down if the proposed CVSD budget is approved by voters on Tuesday, March 7. As the Observer reported on Jan. 19, small towns which had paid tuition to CVU or Williston’s schools to send students there, will see major changes — a 16.2 percent drop in St.George; Charlotte will see an 11.3-percent drop — while the larger towns still see savings ranging from 2 to 6 percent.

Comparing the budget numbers and costs per pupil in a new district — which for the first time doesn’t differentiate the cost of students between elementary and high school — is like comparing apples and oranges, Susan Holson, a spokesperson for the district, said. “I understand the temptation to do that,” she said, but it didn’t hold up because the needs, student types and expenses were so different.

Bob Mason, chief operations officer for the Chittenden South Supervisory Union (which still operates through the transition,)said part of the issue with the jump in costs per pupil for Williston and Shelburne was that both came in with little debt service they were paying out.

That changed after voters in November of 2015 approved $9.25 million in bonds for improvements at Shelburne Community School, and Williston voters last November gave the nod to a $19.8 million bond for a major overhaul at WCS.

“I think what they’ll look at when it comes to taxes is what their bill looks like – I think they’ll quietly be celebrating; all but Williston are going down and they have a 5 percent increase in spending in their district,” he noted.

Another factor leading to the increase in Williston: a new common level of appraisal, or CLA. CLA is used to equalize education taxes statewide to make up for local variances. It adjusts the listed value of a property to fair market value, regardless of when the last town appraisal was. In Williston’s case, the appraisal was updated in 2016. The state incentives, which take off 10 cents from the local tax rate as a reward for merging early, actually ease the tax hit the town might take otherwise.

“They are seeing less of an impact for a change to CLA and increased school spending of 5 percent because we are receiving a 10 cent tax rate cut as part of Act 46 consolidation,” said Shelburne’s Dave Connery, chair of the new district board. “State educational tax policy is both helping and hurting the Williston taxpayer, and the net increase is the 1.2 percent number.”

He added that the new budget also is already including initial payments on the WCS bond, and “this cost is being shared with the district.”

Mason said he believed all the assumptions of savings, namely $1.5 million over five years, were still true, and that it would take at least a year for all the towns to see the benefits of the merger, and that soon enough the state’s tax incentives — which will bring the local tax rate down .10 the first year, .08 the second year, .06 the third year, .04 the fourth, and .02 the fifth year after merging will help out. “That’s a real measurable benefit; it’s clear,” said Mason.

He said there would likely be a lag of a year or two before all taxpayers would see the savings.

The CVSD will have a regular meeting on Tues., Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. in CVU room 160. The first annual meeting of the CVSD takes place Thursday, Feb. 23, at 6 p.m. in CVU Room 140/142 and will include a detailed budget explanation.