Vergennes-area school face budget challenges

VERGENNES — School boards for the Vergennes Union High, Vergennes Union Elementary, Ferrisburgh Central and Addison Central schools will all meet this week to begin what Addison Northwest Supervisory Union officials expect to be another challenging budget season.
Act 46, the new law that prompted ANwSU to call for a unification vote in March, also caps how much schools can increase their per-pupil spending.
That provision poses a particular problem when schools’ enrollment is declining, as officials expect to be the case in 2016 in every ANwSU school except Addison Central.
Ferrisburgh and Addison central schools and VUHS are also all in the top 100 in Vermont in per-pupil spending, and those school boards especially will be facing dollar-for-dollar penalties if per-pupil spending increases by more than a small amount. 
Given that contracted health insurance benefits for ANwSU employees are expected to rise by almost 8 percent in addition to contracted raises and other inflationary factors, boards could struggle to stay within those spending thresholds, official said.
Budget deliberations begin on four consecutive days this week in sessions that are each scheduled to last for an hour:
•  The VUHS board will meet on Monday at 6 p.m. in the school library. It took three votes before ANwSU residents in June backed a third VUHS budget proposal, a $10,258,933 spending plan, one $211,000 less then the plan defeated on Town Meeting Day.
Despite teacher cuts in the VUHS plan that bring faculty job losses to seven over the past two years, plus other staff cuts, the plan represented a spending hike of about $845,000.
That increase included $256,000 toward retiring a $768,419 special education deficit that officials said resulted from years of underestimating those expenses by former administrators, and $439,000 in higher than anticipated spending on special education that they said was a more realistic estimate of those costs.
•  The VUES board will meet at 6 p.m. on Tuesday in that school’s library. This past March, Vergennes, Panton and Waltham voters backed a $4.7 million VUES budget that increased spending by about 7.7 percent after a number of years of much smaller increases.
•  The Ferrisburgh board will meet at 6:30 p.m. at FCS on Wednesday. After a rare budget defeat in March 2015, last May Ferrisburgh voters backed about $3.59 million of spending for the 2015-2016 year. The result was an increase of about 2 percent.
•  The Addison board will meet at ACS on Thursday at 7 p.m. In March Addison residents approved a level-funded budget of roughly $1.54 million.
The potential good news for ANwSU boards is that the House Education Committee met last month to consider legislation that might respond to widespread school board concerns about the per-pupil spending limits imposed by Act 46.
The Vermont Senate is already in favor of easing the spending limits, and House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, told the Independent last week his panel is considering options to do so that include replacing them with an average limit of 2.5 or 2.6 percent, delaying the limits by one year, or allowing a 0.9 percent increase to the limits.
Sharpe said committee members in November were leaning toward the third option, and that lawmakers could pass something in January to provide relief for this budget season.
Without that change, because of their declining enrollments ANwSU schools might have to reduce spending to stay within the per-pupil limits. For example, if VUHS were to lose 15 students, as is projected, per-pupil costs could rise dramatically even if the budget did not increase. The current overall ANwSU student count is 981, while in 2006 it was about 1,240.
According to ANwSU’s final unification report, which will be submitted to the Vermont Board of Education this week, transformation of ANwSU into a Unified District under one-board governance will create tax savings, but not until the 2017-2018 school year.
According to ANwSU estimates, which do not account for adjustments for Common Levels of Appraisals (CLAs), in that year unification would shave about 15 cents off tax rates in Ferrisburgh and Addison and about 13 cents in those towns’ rates the following year.
The savings in those same years in Vergennes, Panton and Waltham would be about 5 cents and 3 cents, respectively, according to the ANwSU estimates.
In the following three years, 2019-2020, 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, savings in all towns compared to projections without unification would be about 17, 15 and 13 cents, respectively, according to the estimates.
Those eligible for relief under Vermont’s existing tax sensitivity laws will also continue to receive help in paying property taxes. Typically, about two-thirds of homeowners in Vermont towns pay property taxes based on their income, not on the full value of their properties.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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