Panton residents seek answers on rising taxes

PANTON — A half-dozen Panton residents attended the Oct. 28 Vergennes Union High School board meeting to urge school officials to seek ways to rein in VUHS spending.
Many in Panton have been upset that the town’s residential school tax rate, although it had been essentially unchanged since 2008-2009, jumped by almost 18 cents for the 2013-2014 fiscal year.
About 47 percent of the increase, according to a state analysis, was due to per-pupil spending at VUHS and Vergennes Union Elementary School, the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union schools that Panton students attend.
According to the state analysis, the other 53 percent of that increase was triggered by Panton’s dropping Common Level of Appraisal (CLA).
According to Vermont Department of Taxes calculations, Panton’s property assessments are lower than fair market value. When values are low, state school officials increase tax rates to compensate.
Most other ANwSU towns saw increases, but because of more accurate CLAs not as much as Panton’s.
On Sept. 24, about 50 residents met with the Panton selectboard, local legislators and state and local school officials to discuss the issue. Panton residents agreed to seek legislative reform in Montpelier, work toward more accurate property evaluation, and meet with local school boards in an effort to understand the budget process and to lobby for lower spending.
On Oct. 28, their focus was on the third part of that plan. Panton resident Cheryl McEwan read a prepared statement that asked about the budget process and also questioned the VUHS board’s proposal for a December vote on a bond to fund interior and exterior improvements.
The board reached consensus on Oct. 28 to hold a Dec. 10 vote on a $2.8 million bond that will include funding the ongoing $600,000 roofing project on a longer-term basis as well as major improvements and repairs to the auditorium, kitchen, cafeteria, and site.
McEwan called the 17.88-cent tax increase “unacceptable,” and her questions were:
•  If the board had “a spending goal in mind” for the budgeting process that started on a preliminary basis last week.
•  What the board’s per-pupil spending goal is, given that in the current year it is $13,565 per pupil.
•  Whether VUHS enrolment is declining, and what is the school’s student-to-teacher ratio. ANwSU business manager Kathy Cannon later in the week said the VUHS student count is currently 526, down from 555 last year and 584 two years ago. Cannon said the current student-teacher ratio is 10.52-1.
•  How the board could do a better job with the money it has.
•  How special education, which has been pegged as a driver in school costs, could “be handled more efficiently,” and whether “new legislation (is) needed in Montpelier to correct the way money is received or collected” for special education.
McEwan also recommended “contracting a professional negotiator” to handle future talks with unions about wages and benefits.
On the bond, she said, “I truly hope there is not a lot of wish list stuff that can be done without.”
Residents in attendance after discussing the bond with board members generally agreed the work was necessary, but still asked the board to make other cuts to offset the extra cost paying for the bond would occur. Cannon estimated that at an additional 1.1 cents on ANwSU tax rates in the first year and 3.7 cents at the peak of payments, but those estimates are pre-CLA adjustments.
Panton resident Paul Tippett said he could support the bond, but offered a condition.
“We’re hoping costs will remain constant,” he said, adding, “You’ve got to demonstrate the same zealotry and tenacity toward going after the rest of the costs.”
The board did discuss the budget for the first time later in the evening, but Cannon said the subjects of percentages and targets did not come up.
Given that the board hopes to increase the maintenance line item to prevent future bonds to pay for deferred maintenance and that bond approval would add more to 2014-2015 spending, Cannon said the budget process that will end in January will be difficult.
“It will be a challenge,” she said.
And not all board members were ready to start slashing deeply. Budgeted spending at VUHS rose about 6 percent this past year — largely, officials said, due to rising health insurance, special ed and energy costs — but that hike followed one of 0.62 percent the previous year and a drop of 0.10 percent the year before that. Over the past decade, Cannon said increases have averaged about 3 percent.
Board member Neil Kamman said programs were already cut back during those lean years.
“I do want people to understand … I am not a big fan of cutting programs now,” Kamman said. “We had some very responsible budgets. At the same time we have to deliver an education.”
Kamman said the board would be looking at opportunities for savings, both in “environmental conservation improvements” and in “discussion of the budget itself, and that starts tonight.”
Board member Jeffry Glassberg said that VUHS spending is not the whole problem in Panton, citing other factors, including the CLA and declining enrollment, that boost per-pupil spending.
“The relationship between tax rates and increases in school budgets are not direct,” Glassberg said.
Still, McEwan said higher spending does have an impact.  
“I am very aware of the CLA,” McEwan said. “When you increase your budget, the taxpayers have to cover it.”
Not all in attendance agreed VUHS spending needs deep cuts. One was VUHS math teacher and parent Nancy Ambrose, a Vergennes resident. Ambrose said the school provides more than an education to local teens because of the area’s limited recreational opportunities.
“I sure hope you care about your kids, and not just your money,” she said. “This is their hub. This is their lives.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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