Tax rate increases outpace MAUSD budget

The 1.45% spending increase comes despite a reduction of four fulltime district teachers and the equivalent of 8.25 other fulltime employees, all achieved through attrition and early-retirement buyouts.

BRISTOL — If residents of the Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD) on March 3 approve the MAUSD board’s proposed $31,399,182 spending plan for the 2020-2021 school year, they are expected to face increases in their towns’ school tax rates ranging from about 5.8% to 8.2%
The budget, if adopted, would increase the five-town district’s spending by 1.45%.
In dollar terms, MAUSD’s estimates for the five district towns call for increases in the tax rate that would range from about 9.6 cents in Monkton, or $96 per $100,000 of assessed value, to 13.5 cents in Starksboro, or $135 per $100,000 of assessed value.
It’s important to understand that only about a third of district and Vermont taxpayers pay based on the value of their homes and not based on their incomes, and thus two-third of residents would receive rebates and not feel the full brunt of those increases.
Factors pushing tax rates higher include declining enrollment that is reducing MAUSD per-pupil state revenue, plus typical inflationary pressures on fixed expenses, rising salaries, and a spike of 13% or more in the cost of providing health insurance.

The 1.45% budget increase comes despite what Superintendent Patrick Reen said at a Jan. 22 budget forum will be a reduction of four fulltime district teachers and the equivalent of 8.25 other fulltime employees, all achieved through attrition and early-retirement buyouts.
Reen also said at that forum the board’s budget maintains all current programs. According to Reen and a forum handout, 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 Elementary School will gain one classroom, and one fewer each will be used in New Haven, Monkton and Starksboro schools. Lincoln classroom use will remain unchanged.
The budget also assumes using $500,000 of a $750,705 surplus from the 2018-2019 school year toward offsetting taxes. The board proposes to use the remaining $250,000 to establish an Education Reserve Fund.
Creating the reserve fund will also require voter approval on March 3, and according to MAUSD officials any use of the fund, if supported, will require voter approval in the future.
MAUSD’s annual meeting is set for 6 p.m. in the Mount Abraham Union High School cafeteria, and officials will discuss and answer questions about the budget proposal and the reserve fund at that meeting.

The district based its budget vote on an estimate it would spend $18,746.76 per pupil, just $10 short of an amount that would trigger a state-imposed dollar-for-dollar penalty on district taxpayers.
According to MAUSD Business Manager Floyd Davison, the latest information from the Agency of Education indicates the district could gain the equivalent of two students, up to about 1,465 students in the entire district. That change, if it stands, would lower the district’s per-pupil spending to $18,719.12.
The altered student count could also lower tax rates by about a quarter of a cent, Davison said, but the district does not want to change the publicly released tax impacts the board voted on back on Jan. 28 given the uncertainty that remains about many financial factors. Davison noted the Agency of Education’s student count estimate has changed twice since Jan. 28, for example.
Still, the biggest of the unknowns is where the agency will peg statewide rates this spring or summer once all school budgets statewide are approved, figures known as “the yield” among state education officials.
“All of these things are up in the air,” Davison said. “The yield we don’t know. We won’t know until, we’re hoping, May. It has been as late as August. The student counts may change again, as they did last year.”  
The good news is that in most years local school boards around Vermont have controlled spending, and the final yield numbers have worked in county districts’ favor.
“In past years it has helped,” Davison said. “Historically, an increase in the yield would be to our advantage.”
District officials are reasonably confident in the latest student-count estimate, however, and Davison said it is good news. The impact on the tax rates is not dramatic, he said, while lowering the district’s per-pupil spending figure is more important.
Now, Davison said, it is more likely there will be a cushion to protect MAUSD taxpayers from the tax penalty. 
“When we reach the end of the year and we know the finalized numbers and we get some small movement that moves against us, it won’t push us over the threshold,” he said. “Where we are with the warning and what we voted on, we’re one pupil away from being over the threshold.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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