Proposed spending could produce 11-cent tax hike

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

The Williston School Board will decide tonight whether it can afford to add new enrichment and technology costs to the school budget without causing an unpalatable tax hike.

School Board Chairwoman Marty Sundby said Monday that the board appears united in its belief that the enrichment and technology additions are needed, but board members are uncertain about whether there is room to fit them into the proposed budget.

In its present form, the proposed school budget for the 2005-06 school year represents a 5.9 percent increase over the current year’s spending. The budget so far does not include the proposed additions in enrichment and technology. Sundby said early projections on the budget indicate an accompanying increase in Williston’s school property tax rate of approximately 11 cents.

Last year’s school property tax rate was $1.51 for residential properties and $1.56 for non-residential properties. An 11-cent increase in the tax rate would mean an increase of $220 on the tax bill of the owner of a $200,000 residence.

Williston voters will consider whether to approve the school budget on March 1. Sundby said the board must finalize its proposed budget at tonight’s meeting.

The enrichment proposal, which consists of the addition of a full-time teacher, would cost approximately $66,000. The technology addition, which largely would fund the purchase of new computer equipment, would cost approximately $23,000.

Last winter, the School Board considered adding both items to the budget. However, the board rejected both amid concerns that more spending would endanger the budget’s chances of passing muster with voters.

Neither item was included in the budget proposed to the School Board by school district administrators and staff from the Chittenden South Supervisory Union in December because they represented significant additions. Instead, they were included as possible additions for the board to consider.

Sundby said the board hopes to keep any proposed budget increase below 6 percent. (The current budget reflected a 7.5 percent increase over the budget in 2003-04.) Therefore, she said the board asked CSSU staff to look for further cuts in the budget to offset the additions of the increased enrichment and technology funding.

“I think the board feels we should add these (enrichment and technology) items,” Sundby said. “But we feel like we need to find some things to cut to reduce the financial impact of them. Our direction to staff was ‘Let’s see where we can pare something back.’ We’d prefer not to just add these things.”

Brian O’Regan, the CSSU superintendent, said the board has already shown a willingness to eliminate two items from the budget totaling $29,000 in order to clear space for the enrichment and technology additions.

One item is $14,000 for new carpet at Williston Central School. O’Regan said the board elected to wait until a facilities committee that is studying the possible expansion and renovation of Williston’s schools has moved further along. O’Regan said the carpeted area could be affected by possible future renovations.

Also, the board committed to remove $15,000 from the budget to pay for a new storage building. Instead, the building will be funded with a withdrawal from the district’s capital budget reserves.

The district currently stores some items for free in a facility on the Mahan Farm property. However, the facility will be removed as part of the construction of a new fire station, prompting the need for more storage space for the school district.

The School Board heard a report from an enrichment task force last week on the current state of the district’s enrichment program. The group recommended adding a full-time enrichment teacher at Allen Brook School.

Currently, the district only has one enrichment teacher — Richard Allen — who shuttles between Williston Central and Allen Brook. Two years ago, in the face of voter rejections of two budget proposals, the School Board eliminated a part-time enrichment teacher.

Sundby said the School Board probably would have increased the part-time teacher’s hours to full-time two years ago in a different financial climate. She said that’s why she wants to add a full-time enrichment teacher instead of a part-timer.

“I’m very comfortable with two full-time people for two buildings,” Sundby said. “That’s what the need is.”

O’Regan said the proposed technology addition would fund an increased investment in new computer hardware. Sundby said the School Board had put off the funding long enough.

“We’ve got equipment in some cases that is 10 to 12 years old,” Sundby said. “They really don’t have any life anymore. There are parts not working and they’re just not functional. We’ve basically squeezed the technology budget the last three years it’s come forward.”