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Schools settle on spending, uncertainty looms

WillistonCentralSchoolLegislature looks at repeal; faulty data could mean trouble

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

The Williston School District Board approved a 2016-17 budget that is predicted to result in a flat tax rate and a state-levied penalty—maybe.

Last week, the Agency of Education told the Vermont Legislature that it provided inaccurate data to schools when giving them their state-mandated spending limits. (See the story on page 2). Kevin Mara, Williston School Board chairman, said he was told on Saturday that the issue could have serious ramifications in Williston.

“It could be severe for us,” Mara said. “If the new numbers from the AOE are adopted, Williston will have to find another $189,000 to cut.”

Spending caps enacted as part of Act 46, and uncertainty about whether the legislature will change the law, resulted in an exceptionally difficult budget work session this year, Mara said.

“The uncertainty has been really tough,” Mara said, adding that typically boards can rely on good assumptions to work through the numbers, which was not the case this year. “The changes came every few weeks, with differences in calculations and formulas and understanding the numbers from the state. On top of that, you almost have to second-guess yourself, because you don’t know what the Legislature is going to do. It really hurts the process because it makes it less objective.”

As part of Act 46, each school district must meet state-assigned spending limits, called “allowable growth percentage,” based on per-pupil spending. If a district goes over the allowable amount, it is double taxed on each additional dollar per pupil.

Williston’s allowable growth percentage is 2.31 percent.

But on Tuesday, the Vermont Senate voted unanimously to repeal the spending cap portion of Act 46. The House, meanwhile, sent questions back to the Education Committee. Some House lawmakers propose increasing AGP thresholds, while others favor repeals and still others advocate leaving the law alone.

WILLISTON APPROVES BUDGET

On Friday, the Williston School Board unanimously approved a $17,201,977 budget, as well as an allocation of $83,788 from the school’s fund balance. As things currently stand, the budget is projected to result in a flat tax rate. That rate includes a $156 per-pupil penalty.

The budget is a $117,964 reduction from last year’s budget and represents $432,608 in cuts from the baseline operating budget. (See sidebar for proposed reductions).

Mara said the board wrestled with whether to make additional cuts to the budget in order to meet the AGP requirements, such as two more teacher’s assistant positions, custodial staff hours and health office assistant hours. Ultimately, however, members felt those cuts were too deep.

“We feel we’ve been really fiscally prudent the last few years,” he said. “We’ve been very good at getting budgets at almost flat rates. We don’t have a lot of excess to take out of the budget.”

In addition, if the board met its AGP, it would have used approximately $100,000 more from its fund balance, Mara said, putting it in a shaky position next year.

If the legislature does nothing to change the law, boards will be facing more budget reductions in the second year of the two-year measure.

“We’re sort of holding onto even bigger cuts for next year because we know we’ll have to make them,” he said. “If we took the full cut this year, we would be putting ourselves in a pretty precarious position next year. It could be a very, very tough year to make even deeper cuts.”

Mara stressed that the budget has still been reduced.

“We worked really hard to reduce this budget. We got to the point where we felt that we didn’t want to go any deeper,” Mara said. “It was a very, very intense process this year. We dug right down to the last dollar, literally. We considered programs to cut that we’ve never thought of.”

If the Legislature repeals the measure and Williston is not penalized, residents would likely see a decreased tax rate. It would not mean money would go back into the Williston school budget.

“We hope people will support the budget knowing we worked really hard to find the right balance between necessary cuts and maintaining a really good education for our kids here in Williston.”

Residents will vote on the budget on March 1.