VERGENNES — The Vergennes Union High School board last week adopted an $8.9 million budget for 2010-2011 that calls for a decrease of about $11,000 from current spending levels.
Despite that level-funded spending plan, Addison Northwest Supervisory Union officials said declining enrollments in three of the four union schools and the expected hike in the statewide education property tax rate would lead to increase in residential property taxes in the five ANwSU towns.
ANwSU business manager Kathleen Cannon said current projections call for a range from a 1-cent property tax increase in Panton to an 18-cent hike in Ferrisburgh.
The Ferrisburgh Central School board adopted a higher budget last week that include payments on last summer’s $1.5 million school upgrade project. Cannon said Ferrisburgh’s common level of appraisal (a formula that aims to level the impact of education taxes across the state) is also lower — about 88.5 percent — than that in other union towns, thus resulting in a bigger upward tax rate adjustment.
The board of Vergennes Union Elementary School — which serves Vergennes, Waltham and Panton — is expected to adopt a budget proposal on Tuesday (the Independent will publish details of the Ferrisburgh and VUES budgets on Thursday).
The residential tax rate estimates assume all budgets — either already adopted by boards or the latest drafts — pass on Town Meeting Day, and that the Legislature adopts the latest recommendation for the statewide property tax rate. The following rates do not include taxes needed to support town spending.
In all, the ANwSU estimates call for:
• An increase in Panton’s residential school tax rate from $1.59 to $1.60, or 0.6 percent. That increase translates to $10 per $100,000 of assessed value, assuming the property owner does not qualify for tax relief.
• An increase in Waltham’s residential school tax rate from $1.43 to $1.47, or 2.8 percent. That increase translates to $40 per $100,000 of assessed value, assuming the property owner does not qualify for tax relief.
• An increase in Vergennes’ residential school tax rate from $1.24 to $1.31, or 5.6 percent. That increase translates to $70 per $100,000 of assessed value, assuming the property owner does not qualify for tax relief.
• An increase in Addison’s residential school tax rate from $1.51 to $1.61, or 6.6 percent. That increase assumes the Addison Central School board decides to cut an additional $154,000 from its most recent budget draft, as board members discussed at a Jan. 7 public forum. Addison taxpayers have been paying a dollar-for-dollar tax penalty to the state for spending in excess of the per-pupil state average because of the school’s rapidly declining enrollment.
That increase translates to $100 per $100,000 of assessed value, assuming the property owner does not qualify for tax relief.
• An increase in Ferrisburgh residential school tax rate from $1.37 to 1.55, or 13.1 percent. That increase translates to $180 per $100,000 of assessed value, assuming the property owner does not qualify for tax relief.
VUHS Co-principal Ed Webbley said administrators and the board were able to hold the line on spending by cutting each department’s budget for supplies, books and travel by about 15 percent, and eliminating two full-time positions, a task made easier by the retirement of an English teacher.
One of the positions cut will come from the middle school, where the school’s drop in enrollment — there are 593 students this school year, 30 fewer than in the previous year — was felt first.
Where the second cut will come from, and even whether it will be one position or a blend of several, remains to be determined, Webbley said. He is not sure that the remaining four members of the English department are enough to carry the load.
“It could be a combination of cuts instead of one cut,” Webbley said. “It’s two positions, but they may not be whole positions.”
Webbley noted the school’s three foreign language programs are healthy and about equally subscribed, and that he will also look at physical education, the school nurse, library services and vocal music as possible areas of savings.
Like the other ANwSU boards, the VUHS board had to handle the delicate issue of budgeting for a new teacher contract during a recession knowing that the statewide property tax would rise. Superintendent Tom O’Brien told those at the recent Addison forum the overall budgeted salary increase was about 2 percent, and Webbley said it might even be a little less at VUHS.
“Obviously, labor costs are the No. 1 factor driving costs in education,” Webbley said.
Webbley said VUHS will still be able to offer a “full complement of courses,” but wonders what the future will bring.
“It’s not quite Draconian yet, the cuts, but it’s getting close to dismantling cherished programs, and that’s a hard thing for a principal,” he said.
At some point, he said, tougher choices may loom. But for now, Webbley believes the budget will meet students’ needs.
“We’re trying to maintain an AP program, an accelerated course array, challenging courses, four levels of international language in three languages, robust math and science offerings,” he said. “All those things make us a comprehensive high school. At some point, the conversation can turn to, facing budget constraints, are we just going to have English 1, 2, 3 and 4? Are we just going to have Math 1, 2 3 and 4? ... At this point we can still deliver. We can still be a cutting-edge high school.”