5-Town schools seek budget hike
BRISTOL — Voters in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro will be asked to approve a 6.6 percent increase in spending in the 5-Towns school district, or face district staff cuts.
Proposed spending for the Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD) is $30,950,235 for fiscal year 2019–2020. The budget reflects $17,730 in spending per equalized pupil, an increase of 8.2 percent.
“This is a larger increase per equalized pupil than voters are used to seeing,” acknowledged MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen, “but if the budget fails and we have to bring back something lower, it would mean cutting staff.”
School board members and administrators will explain the budget at the district’s annual meeting next Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 6 p.m. at Mount Abe in Bristol. Voting on next year’s budget and for school board candidates will take place by Australian ballot on Mar. 5.
Last year MAUSD contained spending per equalized pupil — which increased by only 1 percent — in large measure by eliminating the equivalent of 16 full-time staff positions.
Cutting more staff in the coming year would be bad for morale and bad for the organization, Reen said.
Since 2015, total enrollment in MAUSD schools has declined by 20 students per year, on average. Last year that rate was expected to slow to about 2 students per year by 2022, but new projections indicate an average loss of 10 students annually over the next five years.
Declining enrollment means declining state funding for the district’s seven schools. Unfortunately, it does not also translate into declining costs.
Salaries, health insurance and intensive-needs special education are expected to go up by more than $1.75 million next year.
Faced with these enrollment and cost trajectories, MAUSD faces the unpleasant prospect of cutting more staff positions as early as the 2020–2021 school year, Reen said.
With that in mind, the district has devised a plan it hopes will create more budgeting stability and reduce future personnel cuts.
CAPITAL RESERVE FUND
In addition to considering the budget, MAUSD voters will be asked to approve the creation of a capital reserve fund.
In recent years the district has applied end-of-year fund balances to future budgets as a way of reducing taxes, but this has made a mess of the budgeting process, Reen explained.
For instance, an audit of the 2017–2018 school year shows that MAUSD underspent its budget by about $1.5 million, which may now be applied to the 2019–2020 budget. (Fund balances become available on a “year-after-next” basis because of the auditing timeline.)
The current school year, 2018–2019, will likely produce a far smaller surplus, however — maybe half a million dollars, Reen said.
The result in future budgets is wild swings in revenue — in this case, a decline of $1 million.
So, hoping to create some stability in the budgeting process MAUSD is asking 5-Town voters to divert a portion of the larger surpluses into this capital reserve fund.
If approved, about 40 percent of 2017–2018’s $1.5 million surplus would go into the fund. The rest would go, as usual, toward reducing next year’s tax burden (See box).
“One of the uses of a capital reserve fund could be to address facilities needs,” Reen wrote in his 2019 superintendent’s report.
Addressing those needs has become more and more urgent as Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School continues to fall apart and emergency repair bills pile up.
The school’s plumbing alone has caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage over the last few years. In January mold was discovered in the boys’ shower rooms. Earlier this month, cafeteria plumbing sprang a leak.
MOUNT ABE BOND
Meanwhile, the MAUSD board has begun to explore the possibility of another Mount Abe renovation bond, which could appear on a ballot as soon as Town Meeting Day 2020.
Since 2014 voters have rejected three bonds ranging in cost from $29 million to $36 million.
Meanwhile, rising construction costs and interest rates continue to reduce the district’s purchasing power, and barring a radical change in design approaches, a fourth renovation bond is likely to deliver less value for the district than its predecessors.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
5-Town School Tax Rates
MAUSD has worked up two sets of tax rates for this year’s budget: one that includes the creation of a new capital reserve fund, and one that does not. It should be stressed that the homestead education property tax rates represented here could change depending on any new tax laws/policies or revenue adjustments that could come out of Montpelier this year:
If Voters APPROVE The Capital Reserve Fund:
• Bristol: 6.5-cent increase
• Lincoln: 4.96-cent decrease
• Monkton: 10.98-cent increase
• New Haven: 10.27-cent increase
• Starksboro: 8.37-cent increase
If Voters REJECT The Capital Reserve Fund:
• Bristol: 4.4-cent increase
• Lincoln: 4.96-cent decrease
• Monkton: 7.48-cent increase
• New Haven: 6.27-cent increase
• Starksboro: 4.37-cent increase
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