Opinion: Language is misleading on school budget ballots

 This year (at the voting booth in the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union) “More is Less.” That means, even though per pupil spending is calculated as being MORE, the property tax rates are actually LESS than last year.
Act 46 now requires all schools to add additional language to the ballot that was not there in the past, which will be confusing to read. Specifically, the Vergennes Union High School (VUHS) budget ballot will show this added language: “education spending of $18,290.68 per equalized pupil. This projected spending per equalized pupil is 10.7 percent higher than spending for the current year.”
Reporting a 10.7 percent increase may make voters think a “yes” vote will create a property tax rate increase. Not the case this year. More is Less this year. The property tax calculation has changed and ANwSU is estimating that a 10.7 percent increase in “per equalized pupil spending” will nevertheless produce an average reduction in homestead property taxes for the towns in ANwSU. Please see anwsu.org (scroll down on the first page) for the estimated homestead tax rate comparison for each town.
The driving force behind the percentage increase is a significant loss of equalized pupils. Despite VUHS’ significant staff and other budget reductions over the last three years, our cost per equalized pupil has increased because of the reduction of students.
Here’s a simple example (as simple as can be) that may help. Let’s say our total budget for running the school is $100 for the year and there are five students in the school. That means our “per equalized pupil spending” is $20 per student (100 divided by 5). If we lose two students (and now only have three students) and our budget is reduced by 10 percent of $100 (to $90), then our “per equalized pupil spending” is now $30 per student (90 divided by 3). So, in this simple example, even with the budget reduced by 10 percent, the “per equalized pupil spending” increased by $10 per pupil. This would then allow the state to say, “This projected spending per equalized pupil is 50 percent higher than spending for the current year.” So, even if the tax rate declines for the year, there is per pupil increase.
However, over time, even the “per equalized pupil” statistic can be improved. In particular, if the unification being considered by voters on Town Meeting Day passes it will give us more ability to manage costs and education programming. Unification is essentially being mandated by Act 46. If we don’t pass unification by voting “yes,” the state will come in and do it for us; and we will not benefit from the significant tax rate reduction available had we voted to implement it ourselves.
I know this can be confusing. If the school directors had their druthers it would not be communicated this way. But, we must deal with what we have. So, when you are in the voting booth and considering the school budget vote, please remember that More is Less this year in ANwSU. Vote YES for your school budgets. Vote YES for the unification.
If you need more information contact your school board representative or join your annual school meeting. The students, staff, administrators and the school boards thank you for your time and consideration. Please vote on March 1.
Laurie Childers
Editor’s note: This letter was written before the latest questions about school tax rates surfaced. As the Addison Independent went to press, the Vermont Agency of Education was still awaiting clarification from legislators on how Act 46 will affect the “property dollar equivalent yield” used to calculate the homestead education property tax rates in all local school districts.

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