ACSD budget reflects school tax decreases

MIDDLEBURY — The latest draft of the first-ever global budget for Addison Central School District (ACSD) schools indicates education property tax rates for the seven member-communities could drop next year between 3 cents (in Middlebury) to 27 cents (in Weybridge).
While pleased that school governance unification will deliver some fiscal year 2018 savings to residents in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge, ACSD officials on Monday said they were disappointed to not be delivering even lower tax rates that had been anticipated through the efficiencies of consolidation and the financial incentives promised by the Vermont Agency of Education. The AOE, among other things, is giving the ACSD towns a 10-cent education property tax break during its initial, transition year from nine individual school boards and eight separate budgets to a single ACSD board presiding over one spending plan. 
It should also be noted that district officials are proposing to achieve next year’s tax savings by, in part, applying $815,327 from a total of $1,276,695 in surplus funds from the fiscal year 2016 school budgets. This would result in a district-wide education tax rate of $1.61. Using none of the surplus would create a district-wide education tax rate of $1.66, according to ACSD Business Manager Josh Quinn.
“The fund balance we have now we will probably never see again,” ACSD Superintendent Peter Burrows said.
Officials want to earmark another $100,000 of the surplus for an education reserve fund, and the remaining $361,368 for various capital projects at district schools.
Quinn and other ACSD administrators are putting together a list of $2 million in needed physical improvements to district schools. It will be up to the board to determine how to prioritize the proposed $361,368 for capital upgrades.
“We have a long list,” Quinn said.
Here’s the major reason why local tax rate savings next year won’t be bigger, according to ACSD officials: a drop in student numbers. The Agency of Education is calculating ACSD will have 1,765.25 equalized pupils in fiscal year 2018, which would be a decline of 70 compared to this year. Around 20 of that is associated with an actual decline in enrollment district-wide. And approximately 50 of that is related to an “overestimation of pre-K numbers by roughly 50 equalized pupils for the current school year,” according to a budget narrative provided by Quinn.
This all has a bearing on how much state aid the ACSD will receive. The local residential school tax rate is based on the district’s spending per equalized pupil. Equalized pupils are the number of students in a district’s two-year Average Daily Membership (ADM), weighted by grade level: 0.46 for pre-K, 1.0 for grades K-6, and 1.13 for grades 7-12.
“That was a significant reality hit for us,” ACSD Superintendent Peter Burrows said of the equalized pupil numbers. “We didn’t expect it to drop that much.”
Though little consolation for fiscal year 2018, Burrows said the district’s equalized pupil count is expected to rise and stabilize in the near future.
Quinn stressed the ACSD tax-impact numbers could improve by the end of this month. That’s when the state is expected to provide the latest Common Level of Appraisal figures for Vermont Communities. The CLA is an equalization ratio used to adjust the assessed value of property within a municipality to its estimated fair market value. Each municipality’s CLA is used to calculate its actual homestead and non-residential education property tax rates.
It was two weeks ago that the ACSD board got its first look at a roughly $37.3 million 2018 fiscal year spending plan for the district’s seven elementary schools and Middlebury Union Middle and High Schools. The current budget draft reflects $30,468,224 in local education spending, which would be a 0.47-percent decrease compared to this year.
The ACSD board could decide to earmark more of the $1,276,695 surplus to further stabilize the local tax rates. The panel will next meet on Jan. 11 in hopes of finalizing a spending plan to put to voters on Town Meeting Day. The board will meet again on Jan. 17 if an additional meeting is required to put the budget to bed.
Individual ACSD board members offered their views on the district’s first global budget and its potential tax implications.
Board member Chip Malcolm of Middlebury said while he’s generally pleased, he hopes taxpayers will study the budget documents carefully so they can determine how the spending plan affects their respective schools.
“I think we’re going in the right direction,” Malcolm said. “This is a year of transitioning, budget wise, but it’s also not a year of radical educational change.”
Board member J.P. Rees, also of Middlebury, said the district should place more emphasis on the fact that its long-term budget goal is enduring equal educational opportunities for all kids in the ACSD.
“The goal of this budget is to maintain the status quo and not rock the boat,” Rees said.
Chris Eaton, ACSD board member from Weybridge, agreed.
“Right now, it’s great to have a starting point,” Eaton said. “It’s going to take years to work through a lot of these discussions around bigger possible changes in education. What we have now, I think it’s great, and it’s a nod to what’s to come.”
Board member Ruth Hardy of Middlebury was among the board members who believes more of the 2016 surplus should go toward stabilizing the fiscal year 2018 budget.
 “We have to, in the first year, see a tax decrease or there are going to be taxpayers who are going to be really concerned,” she said.
Failing that, the board should make some cuts, according to Hardy.
“If we’re not going to use the fund balance in order to ensure tax reductions, we’re going to have to reduce the budget to ensure tax reductions,” she said. “So it’s one or the other, in some way. And right now, we’re basically saying a ‘level budget.’”
Hardy believes there’s room to cut some administrative, salary and staffing costs.
“We have to make good on what we sold this on last year,” Hardy said, referring to the Act 46 vote that created the unified ACSD.
Board member Jason Duquette-Hoffman of Middlebury had a different perspective. He said he was concerned about the future potential consequences of adding a large amount of one-time surplus money into next year’s budget.
“We are creating a hurdle for ourselves down the line for a certain short-term advantage of this particular budget,” he said. “I have some real concerns that our budget reflect what people can expect to see long-term.”
The current $37.3 million budget, for example, does not include funding for a district-wide global languages program. Some board members had hoped to offer such a program next year in the unified district.
Burrows explained that while foreign language instruction is a future priority, the current budget concerns — and the need to flesh out a program — prompted him to exclude a district-wide funding and staffing for a language program.
“My recommendation is that we not add (language positions) this coming year, and give us time to build a program,” Burrows said.
ACSD board Chairman Peter Conlon of Cornwall gave high marks to the budget proposal.
“I think this does what we can to preserve what we have and not make a big shock to the system,” Conlon said. “In our discussions about Act 46 and unification, we set up an expectation that there would be tax-rate decreases — 10 cents for sure. But we have this per-pupil glitch and we have the offsetting money to correct that, hopefully.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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