ACSD budget impact becomes clear; Cornwall to see 9-percent tax increase

MIDDLEBURY — State aid information released within the past week by the Vermont Department of Taxes is finally giving Addison Central School District (ACSD) officials a better sense of how Middlebury-area taxpayers could be affected by pre-K-12 education spending during fiscal year 2020.
And the early forecast is that residents in the seven ACSD-member towns could see education property tax rates ranging from a decline of a quarter-penny in Ripton to a 9.27-cent hike in Cornwall, according to information released at Monday’s ACSD board meeting.
Addison Central officials stressed the current numbers are likely to change somewhat based on potential updates on state aid and changes the ACSD board could make to a current draft FY ’20 budget that reflects $31,428,752 in education spending — a 1.9 percent increase.
The ACSD includes Middlebury Union middle and high schools, along with the elementary schools in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.
District Business Manager Brittany Gilman was unable to provide an estimate on Middlebury’s potential education tax rate for next year. That’s because Middlebury is now undergoing a townwide reappraisal of property values, a major undertaking expected to conclude this April. The reappraisal will produce Middlebury’s new “Common Level of Appraisal (CLA),” a key variable used in calculating a community’s education property tax rate.
The CLA is an adjustment to listed property values. The state calculates a CLA annually for each town to adjust the listed value of properties to reflect fair market value as nearly as possible. The CLA is printed on property tax bills.
Gilman and ACSD Superintendent Peter Burrows provided board members with new information on a spending plan the board must finalize within the next few weeks in order present it to district residents on Town Meeting Day, March 5.
Chip Malcolm, leader of the ACSD’s finance committee, said the latest draft reflects an effort to maintain current school programs and services.
“This budget itself doesn’t have a lot of changes, other than tweaking it for a number of positions,” he said.
Malcolm added the absence of state aid information has made it tough to put together a budget. That info has been trickling in, and Gilman offered the following estimates for ACSD towns’ (except Middlebury) education property rates:
•  $1.6019 for Bridport, four-tenths of a penny increase.
•  $1.6578 for Cornwall, 9.27-cent hike.
•  $1.7625 for Ripton, quarter of a penny decrease.
•  $1.6373 for Salisbury, 1.26 cents bump.
•  $1.5969 for Shoreham, 5.3-cent increase.
•  $1.6174 for Weybridge, 1.44-cent jump.
(Note: Middlebury estimate is pending a townwide reappraisal.)
Finance Committee members want to ensure, among other things, that the proposed budget is able to accommodate the ACSD’s ongoing transition to an International Baccalaureate curriculum, and that it doesn’t exceed state-prescribed limits on increases in education spending. The current budget fulfills both of those objectives, according to Gilman.
The ACSD board entered the FY ’20 budgeting process having already made a lot of tough financial decisions.
District voters last March OK’d a 2018-2019 ACSD budget that reflected a 1.32-percent spending decrease and the elimination of more than 20 full-time-equivalent jobs. It accomplished most of those reductions through attrition; several veteran teachers accepted an early retirement incentive offer.
District taxpayers will also benefit from a 6-cent reduction in education property taxes, one of the financial incentives the ACSD received in return for merging its school governance in 2016.
 “We went into our last budget with the intention of being level-funded,” Burrows said, noting an effort to adapt in an era of declining enrollment and unpredictable state aid.
“We came into this budget trying to maintain our current level of services,” he added. “We continue to focus on what we think is really important: Investing in both our systems of support… and developing an International Baccalaureate framework. Those two pieces and the areas of the budget that continue to be the two pillars within the FY ’20 budget, as they have been in FY ’19.”
Gilman on Monday outlined several proposed spending reductions since the first budget draft was released last month. They include:
•  Eliminating a school nurse position that officials believe won’t be needed next year.
•  Not filling a para-educator position at Middlebury Union High School.
•  Reducing a 0.5 FTE “behavior interventionist” position.
The state of Vermont has tentatively placed the ACSD’s equalized per-pupil count at 1,788 for the 2019-2020 academic year, a drop of 36 equalized pupils (2 percent) compared to this year. Fewer students means less state aid and tougher decisions on school programming.
Malcolm noted the school board only has control of roughly 30 percent of the education budget, thus limiting its ability to have a huge impact on the bottom line. State aid, teachers’ salaries and employee benefits are fixed costs once they’ve been negotiated. District health insurance costs are predicted to rise by 11 percent for the 2019-2020 academic year, according to officials, though some of that expense will be offset by recent teacher retirements.
An auditor has estimated the ACSD will have a fund balance of around $124,000 to apply to fiscal year 2020. Burrows and Gilman are both recommending the district place that money in the ACSD’s capital reserve fund, which they noted will be substantially depleted by the end of this year.
Some board members were concerned to hear about the thin financial cushion for school-related repairs.
“I think our need far outstrips anything we can put into the budget,” Burrows said. “Our goal was to take care of any significant maintenance needs in the $100,00 to $200,000 range that come up. If something can wait, we’re going to wait as we finish the (ACSD) master plan and figure out where we’re headed from there.”
Burrows said taxpayers will likely be asked to bankroll significant school repairs in the future. The ACSD is scheduled to retire much if its current capital debt in 2021, which would soften the financial blow if taxpayers agree to float a new school repairs bond in the near future, officials said.
“We know we’re going to have to bond at some point,” Burrows said. “There’s a bond in our future.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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