UD-3 board declines to revisit budget

MIDDLEBURY — A majority of the UD-3 board on Tuesday rejected a motion to reopen the proposed 2010-2011 budget for additional cuts, stating it was too late in the process to make sweeping changes and that district voters will have a chance to send them a message about the spending plan on Town Meeting Day.
The board had called the meeting late last week after it received information from the state that indicated property taxes in some Addison Central Supervisory Union towns could be rising dramatically despite a proposed 2.81 percent increase in spending.
After two hours of debate and two split votes, the panel elected to:
• Stand pat with the $15,967,209 budget it had previously agreed to send to voters. The proposed spending plan would translate increases in education property taxes ranging from 2.42 to 19.02 percent in the seven UD-3 member towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Shoreham, Salisbury, Ripton and Weybridge. Union District No. 3 includes Middlebury Union High School and Middlebury Union Middle School.
• Proceed with plans to ask voters’ support to use $400,000 in fund balance for a series of capital improvements to UD-3 facilities. A majority of the board rejected a proposal, offered by Chairman Tom Beyer, to instead place that money into an “education reserve fund” that could be tapped (with voter approval) for tax stabilization or other program needs should the school budget be voted down.
Board members arrived at their decisions after some spirited debate and forceful comments from several community members, many of whom warned that historically generous UD-3 voters would likely take the almost unprecedented step this March of rejecting the proposed spending plan if it isn’t substantially trimmed. Among the sharpest critics of the current UD-3 draft budget are Middlebury selectmen, some of whom turned out at Tuesday’s meeting to lobby for cuts.
“We feel definitely, positively, to our core that the taxpayers of Middlebury simply can’t pay more,” selectboard Chairman John Tenny told school officials. “Their ability to pay is extended to the limit, and the ability of businesses to pay is in similar condition.”
The selectboard — which will be presenting Middlebury voters with a town budget this March that would preserve the same municipal tax rate for the second year in a row — fired off a sharply worded letter to their school counterparts on Wednesday after learning the UD-3 budget would be warned with no further spending cuts.
“Difficult times require difficult decisions as we struggle to maintain necessary services, paid for by taxpayers, many of whom are on fixed incomes and many others who are no longer employed,” reads the letter, endorsed by all seven selectboard members.
“We regret having to write this letter, but we strongly urge the school board and Middlebury voters to see significant reductions in the fiscal year 2011 UD-3 school budget proposal.”
It’s an appeal that was echoed by officials and citizens. Among them was Carol Eckels, a longtime educator and former Middlebury school board representative.
“I have had five children who went through this school and had an excellent education and I never thought I would find myself in the position I am in this evening,” Eckels told the board. “I cannot support the MUHS budget at this time.
“I think you should be looking at a level-funded budget,” she added. “People are hurting and people have been very, very good to Middlebury teachers, to the Middlebury administrators. They have always valued the work that they’ve done and always been willing to pay handsomely for that good work. But they can’t do it anymore.”
Shoreham school board Chairwoman Elizabeth Christensen agreed, and pointed to proposed 2010-2011 elementary budgets in the ACSU — and surrounding districts — that she said demonstrate more aggressive cutting standards than those espoused by the UD-3 board. She said ACSU elementary schools will be pitching budgets ranging from a 3.29 percent decrease in spending to a 1.68 percent increase.
“This is a unique and difficult time for taxpayers she said,” quoting from several local taxpayers who she said were unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting.
Shoreham town Treasurer Barb Kivlin said she has been hearing an increasing number of complaints from local taxpayers who say that property taxes are too high.
“We are a rural community and the farmers are not making a lot of money right now,” Kivlin said. “I would like to think that some thinking outside the box, or something could be done to do more with less money.”
Middlebury resident Charlotte Tate said she has been concerned about UD-3 spending trends, specifically in the area of hiring. She said she believes the district is replacing veteran workers with high-wage replacements, missing the opportunity to save money by filling vacancies with less experienced, and therefore less costly, applicants.
“I am concerned whether any belt tightening is taking place,” Tate said.
School board members listened intently to the comments, but a majority of the panel said they believed that the spending plan was reasonable, frugal and could not be responsibly trimmed in time to meet Town Meeting Day warning deadlines. ACSU Superintendent Lee Sease said the board would have had to establish a revised figure that very evening.
Those who supported the current budget figure noted that 1.96 percent of the overall 2.8-percent increase is associated with special education services. That leaves less than a 1-percent increase over which the board has control, supporters argued.
Board members reiterated their frustration with state laws and legislative actions they said would trigger a substantial increase in education property taxes in spite of the modest UD-3 spending increase.
Figures released by ACSU officials indicate potential K-12 homestead (a home and two acres) residential education property tax rates ranging from a 2.42 percent hike in Bridport to a 19-percent jump in Weybridge. Middlebury’s education property tax is pegged to jump by around 9.5 percent; that’s up from the 5.9-percent hike that had been estimated last month when the UD-3 board endorsed the budget for warning.
Also factoring into the equation are the Common Level of Appraisal calculations and a recommendation by state officials that the statewide education property tax by hiked by 2.2 cents next year, from the current 86 cents in property value to 88.2 cents. The Legislature has yet to endorse such a move.
UD-3 board member Mark Perrin of Middlebury said local communities will have to learn how to do more with less. That exercise should begin in earnest for next year’s budget, he said.
“Our challenge is how we’re going to move our body of schools, pre-K through 12, into an area where we can do more with less,” Perrin said. “I think that process has to start relatively soon, perhaps before town meeting day. But to take out our frustration, our angst, over this budget, this year, isn’t going to help us at all. We need to give our administrators time to find $500,000, or $1 million.”
Board member Peter Conlon of Cornwall said UD-3 has had to absorb myriad extra expenses during the past few years and still keep its budget down. He cited transportation costs that previously had been reflected at the elementary level, and new special education costs.
“I am of the mind that we knew what we were doing when we adopted this budget back in December and I think we’re at a point where the majority of us feel comfortable putting it before the voters,” Conlon said. “It is really now time for the voters to weigh in on this.”
Conlon noted the budget does not include firm figures for teacher salaries and benefits; the current teacher contract expires at the end of this academic year.
Bjarki Sears, vice president of the Middlebury Educators’ Association (MES), said the teachers’ union realizes the current tough economic times and hopes to keep the lines of communication open with the UD-3 board as the district navigates through choppy budget waters.
“One thing I would hope we could avoid is putting teachers on one side of the fence and other people on the other side of the fence,” Sears said. “There hasn’t been much inclusion of the MEA in this process so far … We do stand ready to participate, to talk, to be collaborative and think creatively. We encourage you to take us up on this offer.”
Board member Devin McLaughlin of Middlebury said level funding the UD-3 budget would still translate into a 7.8 percent increase in education property taxes “due to factors we have no control over.”
He said he was personally comfortable presenting the voters the current budget that represents a 0.84 percent increase when one excludes the special education costs.
McLaughlin and fellow board member Jerry Shedd of Ripton added the state’s education funding law includes income sensitivity provisions that ensure lower-income households don’t bear the full brunt of school taxes increases. But some of those present at Tuesday’s meeting noted that an increasing number of Vermonters are qualifying for such subsidies and many are struggling with other expenses, unrelated to education, in the current economy.
Board member Bill O’Neill of Shoreham favored reopening the budget for cuts and said sticking with the current spending plan would send the wrong message to voters.
“I’m the first one to blame Montpelier when things don’t go well because of politics, and I just want to make sure we are not playing that here,” he said. “I have no problem revisiting a vote… I think by putting it to the voters we might be sticking it to the voters if we are not willing to stop and at least listen to what people are saying.
“We’re looking at a need right now to send a message to the taxpayers that the same struggle they face, UD-3 is facing too,” he added.
The proposal to reopen the draft budget for cuts failed by a 7-5 margin.
The board also defeated, by a 7-4 margin, the separate motion to place $400,000 in fund balance into an education reserve fund intended to provide an emergency revenue source if voters defeat the UD-3 budget. Supporters argued the work in question was safety-related and would cost taxpayers more in the long run if delayed. They also argued that applying a substantial amount of fund balance to the 2010-2011 budget could come back to haunt them if there is not an equal amount of reserve to apply in future budget years.

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