School budget to increase less than 1% (1/28/10)

Taxes could rise by 6 percent

Jan. 28, 2010

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Despite a late addition that increased costs, the Williston School Board approved a budget that increases less than 1 percent. The total budget for fiscal year 2010-11, which voters will approve or reject on Town Meeting Day in March, comes to $16.47 million, a 0.95 percent increase over the current budget.

Property taxes for next year, however, are expected to climb more than 6 percent — a 2-cent increase on the property tax rate. Using estimates provided by the Vermont Tax Commissioner, taxes would escalate even if the school budget did not increase at all, according to Bob Mason, Chittenden South Supervisory Union chief operations officer.

The board unanimously approved the budget during its final budget meeting on Jan. 21. The board previously told administration officials of its hope that a budget increase would remain at less than 1 percent. District Principal Walter Nardelli said at previous meetings that this would be the case. But at Thursday’s meeting, Nardelli said assessment changes in a preschool payment program created a 1.32 percent increase in the budget.

Nardelli told the board the school’s Early Learning Program costs will increase by $126,000 in the next school year. Vermont requires school districts to help cover tuition and other costs for students attending state-approved preschools. Mason told the board the district receives revenue from the program, but it’s not reflected in any budget until the 2011-2012 school year.

“It’s actually a good thing,” Mason said. “Unfortunately, you get the benefit two years after you incur the cost.”

Board members stated their unhappiness with the news and asked Nardelli to find $61,000 to cut to keep the budget increase at less than 1 percent. Board members expressed their concern about the current economic times and the fact that taxes are likely to increase.

“The only way people can say they’re frustrated is by going to the polls,” board Vice Chairwoman Holly Rouelle said. “I want to pass (the budget) the first time. I don’t want to come back and have to cut more.”

Nardelli said he would reexamine next year’s budget and find $61,000 that could be removed. He said the cuts could come from a number of places. For instance, the outcome of the contract negotiations between CSSU and the Chittenden South Education Association may lower costs for next school year if there are changes in teacher raises or health benefits.

Another possibility would be to cut back on increases in technology equipment, science supplies and other areas the board already approved, Nardelli said. He added grants could come through for math teaching training and the school’s mentoring program, which would cover the $61,000 in cuts he needs to make.

As for the mentoring program, Nardelli said it will be funded next year regardless of whether a grant comes through. The board approved $30,000 for the program, although the administration initially asked for $40,000. Nardelli said $30,000 would keep the program functional without cutting services.

“We’re going to support the mentoring program, no matter what happens,” Nardelli said after the meeting.


Tax implications

Mason detailed to the board that no matter how small the district’s budget increase would be next school year, property taxes for Williston homeowners would likely increase. While nothing is finalized, taxpayers may see taxes increase by 6.08 percent. That number includes budget implications from Champlain Valley Union High School.

Mason said the state’s tax formula makes it hard on schools that have declining or steady enrollments. Even before the School Board worked on the budget, taxes would have increased by 2.5 percent, he said.

Residents who own a $300,000 home could expect an increase of $236 on their tax bills, which would cover the Williston and CVU school budgets. Residents who apply for Income Sensitivity will get a significant break, Mason said. People who make $90,000 or less and own a home receive a tax increase cap. Mason said 55 percent of Williston residents participate in the program.

Mason said his numbers are only estimates. The Vermont Legislature may change tax rates in the next few months. In his budget address in Montpelier two weeks ago, Gov. Jim Douglas urged lawmakers to set the state tax rate at current levels. Mason said that would significantly reduce a resident’s tax burden.