School Board passes 6% budget increase

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

The school property tax rate would climb an estimated 10 cents for Williston residents under a plan the School Board approved last Thursday.

The board put its imprimatur on a proposed budget of $13,752,795 for the 2005-06 fiscal year — a boost of 5.97 percent over the current year. The proposed budget features two high-profile items that were considered “maybe’s” — the addition of a full-time enrichment teacher and increased funds to replace old computer equipment.

Accounting for both the local school budget and the Champlain Valley Union High School budget, Williston’s school property tax rate for residential properties would rise from $1.51 to $1.61 under the proposals. The owner of a $200,000 residence would see a $200 addition on his or her tax bill.

For non-residential properties, the school property tax rate would be $1.58 — an increase of 2 cents over a year ago. The non-residential rate is not tied to local school spending.

Both tax rates are contingent on state education funding. A bill being debated in the legislature could reduce the statewide education property tax rate and lower local taxes.

Williston School Board Chairwoman Marty Sundby pointed to the decrease in Williston’s common level of appraisal from 98.79 percent to 95.59 percent as a major factor in the tax rate’s rise. In an e-mail, Sundby said about 7 cents of the rate increase was due to the drop in the CLA.

The CLA measures a percentage of the actual fair market value of property, based on property sales, that is reflected in a municipality’s grand list. As the CLA falls, the property tax rate increases to cover the corresponding increases in property values.

Champlain Valley Union High School ’s 11 percent budget increase also played a role in the tax rate hike. Debt service on the high school’s $19 million construction project accounted for a portion of the budget increase.

Williston taxpayers pay a portion of CVUs operating expenses based on the percentage of the town’s students enrolled at the school.

The Williston School Board was able to meet its goal of including the proposed enrichment and computer additions, which were not initially part of the proposed budget, while keeping the budget increase under 6 percent. The board declined to include both items last year for fear of hurting voter support for the budget.

Board members said the $65,000 enrichment addition was particularly important to serve the district’s students.

“It was so clear that if we could do it, we had to do it,” said School Board member Elizabeth Skarie.

Currently, one enrichment teacher serves the district’s approximately 1,215 students. A part-time enrichment teacher position had been removed from the payroll two years ago when voters rejected two proposed budgets.

Amy Cole, the interim principal for the Williston School District, said the board’s decision to fund the enrichment position was being enthusiastically received by the district’s teachers.

“The staff is just elated about it,” Cole said.

In order to clear room for the enrichment and technology items, the board approved multiple cuts to the budget, including $12,000 in supplies. The cut will reduce spending for supplies from $90 per student to $80 per student.

Cole and Allen Brook School Principal John Terko said each had polled various teachers on the supply cuts and found the teachers approved of the cuts in return for the inclusion of the enrichment teacher.

The board also approved the reduction of $29,000 in operating costs from the budget — $14,000 for new carpeting and $15,000 for a storage facility. The latter will be funded with capital reserves.

In addition, the school district cut $25,000 from a food services budget line item that had been substantially increased over the current year. Cole said school district administrators found the increase to be unnecessary and adjusted accordingly.

“This does not mean a decrease in service or an increase in lunch fees,” Cole said.

Voters will decide whether to approve the Williston school budget and the CVU school budget on separate March 1 ballot items.