Op/Ed

Editorial: ‘Perfect storm’ drives school taxes, but what can be done?

ANGELO LYNN

This Town Meeting, passing school budgets will be no sure thing. That’s largely because tax rates are set to increase by double-digits, even if school budgets are held to rational increases. 

High tax rates are being driven by a rapid rise in housing values, as expressed in the Common Level Appraisal for each town; and because of a loss of federal aid that had been flowing into district schools for the past three years related to the pandemic. Those two factors, when added to the biggest costs associated with education spending — labor (teacher and staff wages), health care and building expenses — are seeing school budgets reflecting double-to-triple inflationary increases. 

Specifically, MAUSD will be voting on a budget that’s 9.2% more total spending than the year prior but sees a decrease in per pupil spending of 1.2%. ANWSD in Vergennes will see a budget increase of 11.6%, but with per pupil spending just under 6%. And ACSD is eyeing a 6.5% budget increase, with an increase in per pupil spending at 9.9%.

Taking the $50 million ACSD budget as an example, the primary drivers of higher costs this year include a 16.4% increase in employee health care premiums (a $765,874 increase); a 4.5% increase in student transportation costs; a potential 16% increase in the Patricia Hannaford Career Center tuition rate; a likely increase in the negotiation of the district’s teacher contract; a commitment by the board to ask voters to fund approximately six full-time-equivalent positions created with federal money to overcome challenges posed by the pandemic; and a new Child-Care contribution tax that could add $100,000-$120,000 to the bottom line. Of those costs, only the added positions meant to handle the problems that arose from the pandemic could be considered optional — and even those positions continue to be needed, district board members say, because students have not yet made up from the “lost time” during the months of remote learning imposed during the pandemic. Perhaps those costs can be trimmed in future budgets, but board members felt those positions were still crucial for the upcoming school year.

Then there’s the impact of Act 127, the so-called “pupil-weighting law” which seeks to change the education funding mechanics in Vermont by assigning different “weighing standards” for students. Essentially, the law weighs students who need more resources higher than those who don’t. In practice, that allows school districts with more “weight” to be able to spend more per pupil without raising taxes. It’s one reason why Mount Abe’s budget is going up 9.2% in total spending, but it’s per pupil cost is actually down 1.2% — mostly because of the difference in student weighting, not because of any noticeable rise in enrollment.

On top of this complicated formula, which tries to create an equal opportunity for education for all Vermont students, taxpayers must consider the CLA, which is adjusted town-by-town and equalizes fair market value of a person’s real estate. Because most town appraisals have not kept up with the rapidly rising real estate values of the past few years, the CLAs are lower than they should be. In the ACSD district, for example, the towns’ CLAs range from 68.33% in Salisbury to 77.07% in Weybridge (compared to 100% of current value.) Tax rates in the ACSD district are expected to jump from a low of 14% in Middlebury to a high of 27% in Cornwall. Other school districts in Addison County are comparable.

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The combination of the various forces driving this year’s tax rate increases is what some school board members have described as the “perfect storm.” The real question is what, if anything, can be done.

In our assessment, not a lot this budget cycle. 

School board members have worked overtime these past few months to whittle down budgets to what they think are the bare essentials to produce quality education. They did that knowing this perfect storm of events would drive tax rates into the stratosphere. Taxpayers can second-guess their school directors if they choose, but cuts to the budgets won’t see great shifts in tax rates (if any) and would see likely cuts to personnel and programs serving critical student needs.

It should also be some relief that next year’s tax rates won’t face this same “perfect storm.”

Health care costs will still be a big driver of costs next year as will CLA’s that will likely remain undervalued, but inflation is already down to a 3-4% rate and going lower, the loss of federal pandemic funding will be assimilated by then, extra teachers and aides hired through federal pandemic funding could be more fully reduced, and perhaps the state legislature will take a page out of history and reinstate state subsidies for school construction.

But this overview of the forces driving tax rates higher and general support of upcoming district school budgets is no substitute for each reader taking an active interest in school spending, and questioning board members on their decisions at the upcoming annual school meetings and informational sessions. They expect you to come with questions and have scheduled the meetings throughout next week, with votes set on or before Town Meeting Day.

Angelo Lynn

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