Fixed costs, fewer kids affect ACSD budget
We went into this budget looking ahead and knowing that we’re engaged in some pretty significant exploration in figuring out how we’re going to fund (educational services) moving forward.
— Superintendent Peter Burrows
MIDDLEBURY — Declining student enrollment and rising costs — including an anticipated 12.9-percent bump in employee health insurance premiums — are in part driving a potential 5.23% increase in education spending as reflected in the first draft of the 2020-2021 Addison Central School District budget.
The preliminary spending plan of $33,071,258 would also, for the first time, push the ACSD budget beyond the state’s allowable spending threshold per equalized pupil. Based on the latest state aid information from the Vermont Department of Education, the ACSD draft budget reflects an 8.84% increase in education spending per equalized pupil. This would take the spending plan roughly $100,000 over the allowable spending threshold, according to district Business Manager Brittany Gilman. Districts face double-taxation for every dollar they spend beyond that threshold, said Gilman, who is recommending the ACSD board apply $100,000 in fund balance to keep the district below that penalty line.
Gilman explained that the state’s per-pupil spending threshold — now set at $18,756 — has been increasing by around 2.5% each year. Trouble is, school budgets have been growing at around 3%-4% each year.
“So you can see where this is starting to create a problem,” Gilman said. “At some point, it catches up with you. It’s catching up with us, and it’s catching up with districts throughout the state.”
ACSD officials cautioned the budget numbers are likely to change before the spending plan is finalized for a Town Meeting Day vote, to be fielded by residents in the member-towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. The budget will cover expenses for the elementary schools in those communities, as well as Middlebury Union middle and high schools.
The ACSD board got its first look at the draft spending plan at its Wednesday, Dec. 18, meeting at MUHS.
Peter Burrows, superintendent of the ACSD, said it’s becoming increasingly difficult for school districts to build effective budgets when they keep losing students and, at the same time, must absorb salary and health care costs that are rising on average by 3.5 percent each year. Addison Central schools have lost a combined total of 100 students during the past two years, according to Burrows. The current forecast calls for 1,600 students next year (excluding Pre-K), down from the current 1,617. That compares to 1,653 last year and 1,717 in 2008.
“We went into this budget looking ahead and knowing that we’re engaged in some pretty significant exploration in figuring out how we’re going to fund (educational services) moving forward,” he told the ACSD board.
A chart supplied by the ACSD shows how student numbers have shrunk at Middlebury-area schools during the past two years. Bridport Central School had 59 students in September of 2017; that number is now 57. Enrollments during that same timeframe have gone from 80 to 82 at Cornwall’s Bingham School; 431 to 417 at Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary School; 282 to 253 at MUMS; 592 to 541 at MUHS; 48 to 47 at the Ripton Elementary; 97 to 77 at Salisbury Community School; 73 to 91 at the Shoreham Elementary; and 55 to 52 at Weybridge Elementary.
A consultant is helping ACSD craft a facilities master plan that will take stock of all of the district’s buildings and inform the board on how it should prioritize investments in those structures during the next decade. This master planning process has spurred concern among some district residents that some of the smallest rural schools in the district might be closed/consolidated in an effort to cut expenses amid shrinking enrollment.
At the same time, ACSD is preparing to transition 6th-graders to Middlebury Union Middle School beginning in the 2021-2022 academic year. Creating a grades 6-8 middle school, board members believe, would further the district’s ongoing transition to an International Baccalaureate curriculum. This move will further shrink enrollment at the rural elementary schools.
Gilman provided some early details on the fiscal year 2021 budget, including:
• A combined total of 3.7 full-time equivalent teaching positions are to be cut from MUHS, Mary Hogan and Salisbury schools.
• A total of 4.7 support staff positions are to be trimmed from MUHS, MUMS, Mary Hogan and Weybridge Elementary.
• A total of 2.5 teaching positions will be added to Bingham, MUMS and Shoreham schools.
• Tuition revenue is expected to drop by about $46,000, which equates to an estimated loss of about three students.
• Student transportation expenses are expected to rise by 5%, from the current $872,306 to $916,509.
• Curriculum-related expenses are projected to drop by 20.6%, from $373,087 to $296,086.
• Facilities expenses at expected to jump by 11.67%, from the current $1.5 million to $1.68 million.
Gilman anticipates ACSD will have a $1,282,303 fund balance available for use in next year’s budget. In recent years, the district has elected to transfer that surplus to its various reserve funds, to defray costs of capital projects, educational initiatives or healthcare expenses.
“Normally, fund balance is not used to decrease the tax rate or education spending per equalized pupils since this creates a ‘cliff’ in the next fiscal year,” Gilman said. “Essentially, any fund balance used to decrease the net budget results in revenue that must be raised, or expenses that must be reduced the following fiscal year.”
The ACSD board will decide in January how to apportion the fund balance — other than the use of $100,000 to keep the district budget below the state’s excess spending threshold. Gilman is recommending that the remainder of the balance be transferred to the education reserve fund.
The next budget review is set for Monday, Jan. 6. Peter Conlon, chairman of the ACSD board, said his group would likely meet each week through the month until a budget is finalized for district voters.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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