School Board learns about budget season challenges10/16/08

Oct. 16, 2008

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

In a year when the state has implemented efforts to limit school spending, the Williston School Board began its budget hearings with a discussion about the difficulties it will face in minimizing increases.

At the opening meeting for the 2009-2010 school budget, Bob Mason, chief operations officer for the Chittenden South Supervisory Union, presented many of the details about the state’s complex changes for this year’s budget season. In particular, school districts will need to work with Act 82 — a new state policy aimed at keeping down budget increases and subsequent tax increases.

Passed earlier this year by the Vermont Legislature, Act 82 requires up to two votes to pass a school budget. Each year, the state will set a maximum increase percentage based on the previous year’s statewide average increase plus 1 percent for inflation.

School budgets exceeding that percentage will require two votes for approval — one to authorize the state-capped increase and a second to approve the excess increase. For instance, if the state sets the maximum increase at 4 percent and a district proposes a budget with a 6 percent increase, voters would need to approve one article for the 4 percent increase and another for the additional 2 percent.

“The second article is only applicable if the first article passes,” Mason said, adding that Williston’s percentage increase has in past years often exceeded the state average.

Act 82 comes on top of the excess spending tax, which is a part of Act 68. The state provides every school district with state funds each year. The specific amount for each district depends on a complex formula that factors in the amount of money a district spends per pupil. Under the excess spending tax, districts that spend more than 125 percent of the state average have their formula adjusted to receive less money from the state.

Mason said it was too early to know what the exact percentages and numbers will be from the state. He said the district should not be too worried about the excess spending threshold, since Williston has never spent in excess. Last year, the state threshold was $11,594. Williston’s per pupil spending was slightly higher, but at $11,652 not enough to be penalized.

Mason later said the current threshold is about $13,200, with Williston just slightly above that. The numbers will likely change, although not by much, he said.

Mason also spoke about budget assumptions, or the amount the budget would increase with no new additions. Most noticeable was the dramatic rise in utilities and fuel costs. Fuel oil costs are likely to increase by 50 percent from the 2008-2009 school budget, Mason said. Natural gas could go up 31 percent and electricity could go up 16 percent. Diesel fuel is likely to increase by 215 percent.

“To be candid with you, this year’s budget is seriously under what the actual fuel cost is,” Mason said. “We’re trying to catch up with three years of growth.”

Mason’s small audience — the School Board, CSSU Superintendent Elaine Pinckney, District Principal Walter Nardelli and four community members — offered opinions for the direction of the school budget and what factors to consider over the next few months. There were concerns about accessory spending, the stability of enrollment, the impacts of expected recommendations from the Conceptual Frameworks Committee about school structure, and the future of Allen Brook School’s modular classrooms. School Board Chairwoman Darlene Worth said all the issues would be further discussed at future budget meetings.

Much-needed repairs to the Williston Central School elevator also served as a topic of discussion. Last year, the administration reviewed plans to build a new elevator at a different location. Nardelli said a new location would be significantly cheaper than rebuilding at the current location. The money was almost put out to a bond last year, but was held back in favor of a new roof.

Mason said while the board can ask voters for a bond, supplemental spending has to be factored into the overall budget, which could influence the Act 82 requirements.

“You can still borrow money, but you still have to show voters any and all spending,” Mason said.

Also discussed was again getting interested community members to be budget buddies. Budget buddies work with the School Board in determining how the budget will look.

Worth said a budget buddy would be particularly helpful for board member Keith Roy, since he is expected to miss several meetings due to a work commitment. Roy would join the meetings via teleconference, Worth added.

“It’s helpful to the board to have someone with an ear to the ground,” Pinckney said.