Proposed taxes up 2.5 percent

By Kim Howard

Williston voters will return to the polls Tuesday to weigh in a second time on a proposed 2007-08 Williston School District budget.

The new $15.69 million proposal is a 4.88 percent increase over the current year. On Town Meeting Day, voters rejected a $15.9 million budget that would have been an increase of 6.83 percent.

Voters “need to know we have made serious cuts this year,” Williston School Board Chairwoman Darlene Worth said this week. “Some people are taking on additional jobs; we’re patching in some places.”

Special education services, for example, will not see as much of an increase as originally planned, though the new budget still allots an additional $250,000 for that area. Voluntary changes in personnel through retirements, leaves of absence or hour reductions also saved money. Other cuts included elimination of the band bus, a kindergarten bus run, and a regular school bus run. Classroom supplies were reduced by $10 per student, leaving $80 per student.

Four areas will get more scrutiny in the coming year, Worth said: food service, transportation, class structure and facilities. The School Board will hold meetings in Williston starting in September on each of those areas, Worth said.

“We need to hear what the community is saying,” she said.

The new proposed budget means a school property tax increase of 2.5 percent, half as high as the budget that failed in March. The owner of a $300,000 house, for example, will pay $129 more in school taxes – before income sensitivity adjustments – than they paid this year if the new budget passes.

Enrollment steady; test scores high

Unlike many schools in Vermont, Williston’s public school enrollment is not declining – something Chittenden South Supervisory Union Superintendent Elaine Pinckney said is important for voters to understand.

In 2001, for example, Williston schools enrolled 1,192 students; when school started last fall, there were only 12 fewer students. By contrast, Charlotte Central School has lost roughly 100 students in the last five years, Pinckney said.

Williston School District annually spends less per student than Charlotte, Hinesburg and Shelburne – the other towns in the supervisory union. Unlike school districts that see budget increases slow or even shrink with declining enrollment, Williston’s budget must increase to keep pace with enrollment, Pinckney said. Where other towns can cut teachers because they’ve seen such big drops in enrollment, she said, Williston can’t.

“When you don’t have declining enrollment, you can’t go there without affecting (the quality of the) program,” Pinckney said.

With a higher enrollment than other towns at the high school and in the supervisory union, Williston also must pay a higher percentage of the high school and supervisory union budgets.

Williston Central School Principal Jacqueline Parks said at the April 5 budget meeting that one measure of school quality is student test scores. And Williston, she added, is doing well.

“People are getting a good quality product for what they’re paying in,” Parks said.

Williston’s public elementary and middle school students outpaced their Vermont peers by hefty margins in the most recent state test results in reading, writing and mathematics.

Salaries and benefits cause conflict

A point of tension in the first several School Board meetings after the budget failed was school personnel salary increases and benefits.

Teacher salary and health insurance benefits are negotiated as part of a supervisory union-wide contract. The contract that would go into effect on July 1 is currently under negotiation. The last contract guaranteed salary increases of 4.55 percent annually for the last three years. This year the average Williston teacher salary is $60,924. The average CVU High School teacher salary is $57,768.

Some Williston residents have asked if teachers and administrators should pay a larger share of their health insurance premiums. Currently they contribute 10 percent for a basic premium that costs $5,622 for a single person and $14,815 for a family. The Chittenden County public school teacher average contribution is slightly more than 11 percent. Increasingly public employers – like the State of Vermont and the University of Vermont – expect closer to 15 to 20 percent.

If Williston teachers and administrators contributed 20 percent to their health insurance premiums, that would save roughly $80,000, or less than half a percent of the Williston school budget, according to Chief Executive Officer Bob Mason.

Special education spending below stage average

The number of students requiring special education services is increasing in Williston schools according to administrators, especially in the early years. While special education expenses account for a solid portion of the proposed budget increase, Williston spends 12 percent less per pupil than the state average.