Proposed school budgets mean 5% tax increase

Williston school expenses increase 6.5 percent

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

With a boyish grin on his face, and a hint of sarcasm in his voice, Williston School Board member Andy Bishop on Thursday night said he’d been dreaming of page 14 in the proposed budget: the Act 68 equalized homestead tax rate calculation.

As if it was the best thing since Ben and Jerry invented coconut almond fudge chip ice cream (Bishop’s favorite), Bishop quietly fawned over the sheet with 32 lines of data traced over four fiscal years.

The reason for Bishop’s feigned enthusiasm was not lost on some of those present at Thursday’s board meeting. For the uninitiated, and even some veterans, the tax rate calculation sheet’s 32 lines are perhaps the most complicated piece of the school budget process.

Line 1: $15.97 million — the total proposed budget to run Williston’s public elementary and middle schools next year.

Line 3: $5.7 million — Williston’s share of Champlain Valley Union High School’s budget for next year.

Line 5 totals the two.

Each succeeding line – with names like “initial education spending” and “per pupil figure used for calculating district adjustment” move progressively closer to the one line that most voters care about: Line 24, the estimated actual homestead tax rate – or what a Williston homeowner will pay for next year’s property school taxes.

The budget total

The Williston School District Board of Directors on Thursday night approved a $15.97 million proposed budget for the 2007-2008 school year. The school district serves students in preschool through eighth grade from the towns of Williston and St. George.

The proposed budget that will go before voters in March represents a 7 percent increase over this year’s budget. Due to a recommended accounting change – meaning that Medicaid-related expenses must be listed in the budget, even though there is an equal amount of revenue – the actual increase in school spending is 6.5 percent. Last year, Williston voters approved a budget increase of 7.5 percent.

About half of the proposed increase is due to projected increases in salaries and benefits for teachers, administrators and staff that work at Allen Brook and Williston Central schools. Though teacher contracts expire in June, the budget includes an estimate of 6.6 percent increase in salary and benefits. Annual increases for staff are set by a contract that took effect last year.

The other half of the proposed budget increase is in special education programs and staffing. Those changes include one new professional special educator position and several paraprofessional educators.

Increasingly, Williston schools are seeing students with learning and physical disabilities, administrators have said. By law, schools must supply whatever instructional supports are reasonable to ensure those students have equal access to educational success.

Outside those two heavy-hitting cost areas, a number of small programmatic additions also were made to the proposed budget. The St. George School Board recently voted to provide more than $17,000 for the purchase of books, writing and reading comprehension materials to step-up literacy efforts.

The Williston School Board, for its part, agreed to add to the budget line items for additional supplies and several part-time positions. The board approved $27,300 to add a 30-percent-time foreign language teacher. The increase in students interested in foreign language is “still going strong,” District Principal Walter Nardelli told the board. “We’re trying to keep class sizes at a reasonable number.”

Another significant programmatic improvement is in intensive math instruction. For $9,198 the Board approved adding another half-day for the math intervention instructor to work with students who struggle in math.

One proposed improvement that is not part of the regular budget is renovations for bathrooms upstairs at Williston Central School. In a formal presentation to the board, a group of students advocated that the 38-year-old bathrooms be uppated. Currently the bathrooms are not in compliance for wheelchair accessibility, presenters said, and they are the only bathrooms available on the second floor.

The School Board on Thursday agreed to ask the public to allow them to use up to $150,000 of the school fund balance on renovation projects to include the upstairs bathroom. The school district maintains such a fund balance in case of unforeseen building emergencies.

Tax Implications

In addition to the budget for Williston schools, Williston taxpayers are responsible for about $5.68 million, or 35 percent, of Champlain Valley Union High School’s budget. Accounting for both budgets, the town’s total proposed school spending for the 2007-2008 school year is $21.68 million.

If voters approve both the Williston School District and the CVU High School budgets, Williston homeowners will face a 5 percent increase in their property taxes, or 8.5 cents for every $100 of their home’s assessed value. For a $300,000 home, that’s a $255 tax increase, before any state reduction in school taxes according to income.

State income sensitivity guidelines reduced the final school property tax bill for nearly 1,500 Williston homeowners last year. Those residents – with an average household income of $55,300 – saved an average of $1,444 each.

If the budgets pass on Town Meeting Day, Williston business owners will face a nearly 11-cent increase for every $100 of the business’ assessed value. For a $500,000 business, that’s a nearly $550 increase.

The School Board directors will hold an open forum on Thursday, Feb. 8 at 6:30 p.m. at the Williston Central School meeting room near the front of the school to discuss the school budgets and tax implications. The public is encouraged to attend.