Some good news as ANeSU boards start budget work

BRISTOL — School boards across the state are facing additional challenges as they draft budgets for the 2016-2017 school year.
Health insurance costs through the Vermont Education Health Initiative — used by most school districts — are up 7.9 percent, at the same time as Act 46 is putting a squeeze on per pupil spending.
For administrators and school boards in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union, now drafting budgets for the coming year, the spending threshold in Act 46 limits spending increases to between 1.35 and 2.1 percent throughout the six ANeSU schools.
Still, with enrollment for the most part holding steady or even increasing slightly across the supervisory union, some boards are cautiously optimistic that they will be able to stay within the threshold and maintain current levels of service.
“Right now we’re in pretty good shape,” said ANeSU Interim Superintendent Armando Vilaseca, as he addressed the Bristol Elementary School board, gathered round a table in the school library Monday evening.
“We’ll know more, of course, in the next few weeks about anything that may come through the state,” Vilaseca continued. “But right now, this is much better, quite honestly, than I was anticipating when I started here a week and a half ago. This is good news.”
Along with setting timelines, incentives and penalties for getting schools to consolidate governance into larger K-12 districts of around 900 students, Act 46 also set spending thresholds based on spending per “equalized pupils” (the state determines “equalized pupil” numbers by weighting students based on whether they attend school for a full year and many other factors). Each district was given what the law calls an “allowable percentage increase” in its spending per equalized pupil, based on a formula that crunched the numbers based on that district’s spending per equalized pupil for the current school year.
Schools that spend more than the allowable growth percentage in the Act 46 legislation will be double taxed for the amount over the threshold, explained Brad James, education finance manager for the Vermont Agency of Education. For example, said James, if a district’s threshold for spending per equalized pupil were $14,500 and the district budgeted $14,800 then that district would be double taxed on the $300 it had gone over the threshold, when the state calculates its residential education tax rate.
“The homestead tax rate would be calculated on $15,100 not $14,800,” said James.
The state’s allowable growth percentage for Bristol Elementary School is 1.78 percent. That means that in order to avoid the tax penalties, spending can go up $258 per equalized pupil from the 2015-2016 level of $14,504 per pupil.
The preliminary draft budget comes in with a growth percentage of just 1.47 percent, up roughly $213, which would bring spending per equalized pupil to roughly $14,717 for the 2016-2017 budget.
As boards began looking at budget numbers this week and last, Vilaseca and ANeSU Chief Financial Officer Howard Mansfield were still receiving numbers from the state, such that crafting budgets was very much a moving target. Districts were waiting on firmer numbers in regard to surplus levels and revenue, among other details important to next year’s budgets. Vilaseca and Mansfield expect to receive revenue numbers by Christmas.
The Legislature is expected to address the allowable spending limits set by Act 46 sometime in January, but Vilaseca cautioned boards against waiting for legislative changes.
“I wouldn’t count on it,” he said.
Vilaseca pointed out that returning legislators would have very little time to change the law before school budgets are due to town clerks later in January.
Given the data still outstanding, Bristol school board chair Steve Barsalou urged that the board “err on the side of caution” and keep the spending increase under 1.47 percent until revenue and other outstanding numbers come in.
Ultimately, Bristol Elementary School board members agreed with Barsalou and said they would continue to work with Bristol Principal Sandy Jump to incorporate the school’s top-priority additions to the budget, should updated numbers allow for higher spending.
Jump told the board the school’s top priority is to maintain “what we’re offering students now” and addressed the importance of maintaining current staff levels in terms of staff morale and student learning.
“Last year we did have a reduction in staff that was very difficult to go through,” said Jump. “We’re really working at bare bones right now, and the staff is doing a great job. But to do that year after year after year does take its toll on student learning. So when you go through all this and you say, ‘We really would like to maintain what we have’ and you see the kids really thriving in school, you don’t want to see any more reductions.”
Other ANeSU school boards are facing similar questions on how to plan their budgets.
In New Haven, the school board does “not want to exceed the threshold,” according to Brad Bull, chair of the Beeman Elementary School board. With spending set at around $1.9 million, Beeman’s preliminary budget draft is just a touch over the school’s allowable growth percentage of 1.54 percent, Bull said. And the board expects to “shave around $30,000” to avoid the tax penalty.
Bull also noted that while Beeman’s equalized pupil numbers grew from 93.15 this year to an estimated 97.43 for 2016-2017; the school grew by 15 actual students attending this fall, he noted. As the smallest school in the supervisory union, this growth is important.
“That’s a healthy increase and we’re happy about it,” said Bull.
Beeman’s spending per equalized pupil in 2015-2016 is $15,323. To stay within the state’s allowable growth percentage, the maximum spending in 2016-2017 would need to be $15,554.
The Monkton Central School board minutes also report that “the budget includes everything requested, and there is still a little bit of wiggle room.” The Act 46 allowable growth percentage for MCS is 1.43 percent. Monkton Central School’s spending per equalized pupil in 2015-2016 is $15,724. That brings the threshold for 2016-2017 to $15,924 to avoid the tax penalty.
For Lincoln Community School the allowable spending increase is 2.10 percent, which puts the spending threshold at $15,196 for 2016-2017.
As this article went to press, the boards for Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro and the Mount Abraham Union High School had yet to meet. The state’s allowable spending increase for Robinson Elementary is 1.56 percent, which would put spending per pupil for next year at $15,718 before there would be a tax penalty.
For Mount Abe, the 1.35 percent allowable spending increase would limit 2016-2017 per pupil spending to $15,688, after which the penalty kicks in.
Whereas elsewhere in the ANeSU the numbers of equalized pupils have held steady or increased slightly, at Mount Abe these numbers have gone down, which could make crafting a budget within the allowable growth percentage far more of a challenge, school officials said. According to numbers that the ANeSU had this week, the state calculates that Mount Abe has 795.41 equalized pupils in the current school year and this will go down to 738.16 next year.
At the close of Monday’s Bristol School Board meeting, the board recognized visitor Michaela Wisell, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at the meeting who wished to speak. Wisell commented:
“I do think that we’ve had open conversations this year about the budget, and it’s felt pretty good. This is all good news tonight, and that’s fantastic.”
Wisell went on to say how important it is when working toward a budget number to always remember “what the number means for kids.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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