MAUSD weighs $31.4 million budget
BRISTOL — The Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD) board is poised this Tuesday to adopt a roughly $31.4 million spending plan for the 2020-2021 school year that would increase 5-Town district expenditures by 1.45%, but tax rates by possibly more than twice that percentage.
The board and MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen on this past Wednesday unveiled that all-but-final budget draft to about 20 residents at a meeting at Mount Abraham Union High School.
The central question for board members this week is how they will handle a $750,000 projected fund balance. The answer will help determine the budget’s tax impact in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro.
That impact already will vary because the towns have different Common Levels of Appraisal (CLAs). New Haven and Starksboro in particular have low CLAs that will add pennies to their tax rates as state officials make adjustments to account for below-market town-wide real estate assessments.
The board on Tuesday will decide whether to propose taking $250,000 of that fund balance and placing it into a reserve fund, using the rest to lower the tax rate. As well as weighing in on the budget on Town Meeting Day, MAUSD voters will decide whether to support the board’s plan for the fund balance — unless the board simply uses it as revenue.
“The board has a decision to make,” Reen said.
Reen and Board Chairwoman Dawn Griswold said they would both recommend to the board on Tuesday that $250,000 of that projected surplus be put into a reserve fund. One reason both cited in favor of that approach is a recent ruling in favor of employees in an appeal over the new statewide school health insurance contract.
No one can predict exactly what the financial impact of the ruling will be, other than the costs of providing health benefits, already expected to rise by about 13 percent, will be even higher.
“It’s a little bit of a safety net in really dealing with health care costs,” Reen said.
Assuming $500,000 of the surplus is used, without CLAs applied, the MAUSD tax rate for each town would be $1.6426 per $100 of assessed property value. Many factors could still affect that rate, including students enrolling or leaving the district, and the final statewide education tax rate that will not be known until all Vermont school budgets are approved this spring
According to information available now, MAUSD officials estimate if the voters back the $31.4 million budget and the $250,000 reserve fund, tax rates could increase by a range of roughly 3% to 5% once CLAs are applied (see chart).
If the board were to devote the entire $750,000 to reducing taxes, the MAUSD estimated increases over current tax rates would range from about 3.8 cents in Lincoln ($38 per $100,000 of assessed value in additional taxes) to 7.6 cents in Starksboro ($76 per $100,000 in assessed value in additional taxes.)
Reen added that even by holding back $250,000 for the reserve fund, MAUSD’s per-pupil spending would not be high enough to trigger the state spending penalty — although it would be close, now estimated at $18,746.76 per pupil.
“This does get us under the spending threshold by $10 a kid or so,” he said.
If the board wants to put $250,000 into a reserve fund voters must approve it in a separate article on Town Meeting Day, and residents must in the future back any use of that money.
Since the board saw the most recent budget draft, the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center tuition rate came in and it drove up MAUSD spending by $120,000.
MAUSD projections also took a hit on the revenue side when officials realized they had misapplied as MAUSD revenue $322,000 from the state that is a pass-through to Hannaford. That accounting error raised the amount the district must raise through taxes to fund its proposed budget, and thus increased its per-pupil spending amount.
Reen said unlike the past, when spending increases were the main driver of local tax rates and voters often routinely backed 3% spending increases, now the major factor that determines taxes is per-pupil spending.
Now, he said, MAUSD taxes could increase by around 3% to 5% with only the 1.45% spending increase.
Reen said the current budget maintains current programs, although the number of classrooms being used in district elementary schools will be adjusted to reflect changing enrollments and ensure class sizes fall within district guidelines. Bristol’s will gain one classroom, and New Haven, Monkton and Starksboro’s schools will each have one fewer classroom.
The district will also field a combined total of 12.25 fewer teachers and support staff members, including four full-time teachers, all through individuals choosing to move on during the current school year or accepting early-retirement packages, Reen said.
One full-time information technology position has been added, Reen said, and no lay-offs were needed.
“We’ve been able to make all the changes without a RIF (Reduction in Force notice),” Reen said.
One resident was concerned about the numbers of employees projected to leave.
“That feels like a lot of staff,” the resident said. “I just think of the most vulnerable students who are connected with that staff.”
Reen replied that the district’s “system of supports” remains in place, while district schools would always respond to those students.
Current enrollment projections call for a drop of seven pupils next year to 1,340, for essentially stable enrollment in the 2021-2022 year, then a dramatic drop to 1,311 and 1,291 through the next two school years after that.
Meanwhile, Reen said, health insurance, salaries, maintenance, utilities and other costs are projected to keep rising as the revenue from the state based on pupil count remains the same and then declines.
In the discussion of the savings realized from having a net of 11.25 fewer employees, Reen said comparable spending reductions will be needed in the next few years to keep the district under the threshold over which the state would start charging MAUSD a dollar-for-dollar tax penalty.
“I don’t see anything different next year, or the year after that,” he said.
According to MAUSD handouts at previous meetings, the district could save $1 million a year by cutting 8.6 administrators, 12.6 teachers, or 22.1 support staff members.
Or the district could save between $1.25 million and $1.75 million per year for each school it closed, according to MAUSD estimates. The MAUSD articles of unification stipulate that residents of an elementary school’s town would have to approve its closure.
On Wednesday, Reen said that when he and central office financial employees put the budget together they looked at the feedback the board’s Community Engagement Committee received from a half-dozen meetings in 2019, as well as board values and the district’s strategic plan.
They asked “how does this budget support that vision,” Reen said.
The result, he said, was a budget that reflects community values and involvement, an emphasis on life and career skills as well as core subjects, innovative and flexible pathways to learning, equity across the district, safe and well maintained schools, and students, as the handout stated, who are “physically, socially and emotionally healthy and happy.”
“This is what I imagine for our schools,” Reen said. “This budget accommodates those things while achieving our financial target.”
MOUNT ABE SCHOOL DISTRICT TAX RATE
As it stands, education tax rates per $100 of assessed property value
• Bristol’s rate would rise 9 cents to roughly $1.70, adding about $90 of taxes per $100,000 of assessed value.
Bristol’s CLA is 96.6%, adding to the rate.
• Lincoln’s rate would rise 5.9 cents to roughly $1.55, adding about $59 per $100,000 of assessed value.
Lincoln’s CLA is 105.85%, lowering the rate.
• Monkton’s rate would rise 5.4 cents to roughly $1.71, adding about $54 per $100,000 of assessed value.
Monkton’s CLA is 96.11%, adding to the rate.
• New Haven’s rate would rise 5.9 cents to roughly $1.76, adding about $59 per $100,000 of assessed value.
New Haven’s CLA is 93.51%, adding to the rate.
• Starksboro’s rate would rise by 9.2 cents to roughly $1.73, adding about $92 per $100,000 of assessed value.
Starksboro’s CLA is 94.74%, adding to the rate.
* Roughly one-third of taxpayers pay solely on the value of their homes; a majority of Vermonters get an education tax break based on their income.
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