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MAUSD budget set; tax rates uncertain

BRISTOL — The Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD) board on Tuesday, as expected, agreed to warn a roughly $31.4 million budget for the 2020-2021 school year that, if approved on Town Meeting Day, would increase the five-town district’s spending by 1.45%.
The district has estimated it would spend $18,746.76 per pupil, just $13 short of an amount that would trigger a state-imposed dollar-for-dollar penalty on district taxpayers.
But the tax impacts of that budget are now unclear because the district on Wednesday received new data from the Department of Education (DOE) that showed MAUSD would have about two more equalized pupils than previously expected. More students means more revenue and a lower per-pupil district spending number, and thus in turn a lower district-wide tax rate.
Then later in the day, according to MAUSD business manager Floyd Davison, the district office received another DOE communication indicating the earlier information could be incorrect. The second communication advised MAUSD not to rely on the data in the first communication.
The DOE’s communications followed the recent discovery of an accounting error in the tax estimates released in the booklet MAUSD officials handed out at the board’s Jan. 22 forum, a meeting devoted to explaining the budget and its tax impact.
Essentially, according to Davison, during the complex, months-long budget development process the 4-cent tax-rate discount awarded to the district by the state as an incentive to unify had been counted twice. 
“It was multiple spread sheets to get here, and it was put into one, and it was put into another,” Davison said.
The Independent will report as soon as possible the updated projected tax impacts of the spending plan on residents of Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro.
Because of the possible changes to the student count and the MAUSD accounting error, the tax estimates provided by MAUSD and printed in the Jan. 27 edition of the Independent are not correct.
According to MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen at the Jan. 22 budget forum, the spending plan the board discussed last week and approved this Tuesday maintains current programs.
But 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. According to the handout, Bristol Elementary School will gain one classroom, and one fewer each will be used in New Haven, Monkton and Starksboro’s schools.
The budget calls for a total of four fewer teachers the equivalent of 8.25 other full-time employees, all of whom either chose to move on during the past or current school years or accepted early-retirement packages, Reen said.
The Independent had previously erroneously reported the district would add an Information Technology teacher, but Reen confirmed in an email this week that is not the case.
Reen said on Jan. 22 no layoffs were needed to create the reductions in staffing levels, although he cautioned similar levels of savings would be required in the years to come if the district is to avoid a dollar-for-dollar tax penalty for exceeding a state-imposed per-pupil spending limit.
Spending drivers include salaries and benefits, notably spiraling health-insurance costs that are expected to increase by more than 13%.
Those and lost revenue from declining enrollment ensure there will be tax impacts when MAUSD releases its estimates.
The board on Tuesday also decided how to handle a $750,705 surplus from the 2018-2019 school year. The board proposed to use $500,705 to offset taxes and the remaining $250,000 to establish an Education Reserve Fund.
Creating the reserve fund will require voter approval on March 3, and according to MAUSD officials any use of the fund will also require voter approval in the future.

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