Education News

Orwell voters field third Slate Valley budget on May 9

ORWELL — Orwell residents will join neighboring towns in Rutland County in making a trip to the polls on Thursday, May 9, to take a third crack at passing a fiscal year 2025 spending plan for the Slate Valley Unified Union School District (SVUUSD).

The SVUUSD provides preK-12 education for students at Orwell Village School, Benson Village School, Castleton Elementary School, Fair Haven Graded School and Fair Haven Union Middle High School. The district’s current preK-12 enrollment is 1,232, a number expected to decline slightly to 1,227 next year.

District voters on Town Meeting Day rejected an initial, $31,021,635 budget proposal by a 1,468-1,004 margin.

School directors trimmed $150,000 from that spending plan, representing three full-time instructional assistants, ($120,000) and elementary school late buses ($30,000). That revised budget of $30,871,635 was put to voters on April 11, and failed again, this time by 947-544.

The SVUUSD board convened after the second failed vote and — after hearing feedback from various stakeholders — reduced the spending proposal by another $61,500, money that had been earmarked for a counseling position. The district in recent days was able to find grant money to subsidize the post.

So, on May 9, SVUUSD residents will field the newly revised spending plan of $30,810,135. That’s $211,500 less that the budget voters originally defeated on March 5.

Brooke Olsen-Farrell, SVUUSD superintendent, noted the $30,810,135 request reflects a FY24-to-FY25 spending increase of around $2.8 million, or approximately 10%. Proposed new investments include an additional classroom teacher in Benson Village School, which has seen an enrollment jump; additional social and emotional support for students, in the form of specialists and counselors; and an approximately $125,000 investment in afterschool and summer care in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club.

“These new investments have been widely endorsed by families and other community stakeholders,” SVUUSD Board Chair Pati Beaumont stated in a message to district constituents posts at tinyurl.com/4atd8nta. 

Other factors driving the spending increase, according to Olsen-Farrell, include a 16.4% ($540,000) bump in health insurance premiums; contracted wage/benefits increases for district employees; inflation; the impact of a new employer child care tax of 0.44% ($73,000); the recent addition of long-term disability and life insurance for support staff ($24,250); the sunset of federal pandemic assistance (creating an approximately $200,000 revenue shortfall); increased building maintenance expenses; and growth in the number of students with mental health and behavioral needs.

LOWER COST PER PUPIL

While the proposed budget-to-budget increase amounts to around 10%, the actual tax impact of the budget — excluding such factors at the Common Level Appraisal (CLA) — paints a very a different picture, according to SVUUSD officials.

Based on the latest state aid data, the proposed $30.8 million spending plan would allocate $11,294.83 per weighted pupil. That’s actually 0.03%, or $3.45, less than Slate Valley’s current $11,298.29 in spending per weighted pupil, according to district data.

That is lower than spending per weighted pupil in most of the surrounding school districts, including Addison Central ($16,099), Addison Northwest ($15,306), Otter Valley ($12,465), Rutland Town ($13,666) and the statewide average — as of April 18 — of $13,294.

“It’s been very challenging trying to explain this to the community,” she said of the budget’s funding nuances. 

“It’s a statewide funding system. The fact that there are districts around us that spend more money impacts the (tax) yield, which impacts out tax rate. We should be concerned about spending in all districts in the state. So, to just vote down our budget and say we need to cut, is really not going to save you on your tax rate. People largely don’t understand that, and are just angry about taxes as a whole.

“It’s challenging, because when people don’t understand, they don’t trust, and then they tend to vote ‘no,’” Olsen-Farrell  added. “So our schools in Slate Valley continue to be under-resourced, yet (our taxpayers) expect better results. It just doesn’t work that way.”

TAX RATE AND CLA

District officials tentatively calculate that the new FY’25 SVUUSD spending plan would create an estimated equalized education tax rate of $1.1471 per $100 in property value — a 2.15% decrease compared to this year.

But the actual education tax rates in district-member towns are projected to be quite a bit higher than the $1.1471 — due to the CLA factor.

CLAs are ratios of a town’s assessed values to actual fair market sales values. The CLA is used to equalize education property tax rates throughout the state. They’re expressed as a percentage: A 100% CLA means a community’s property assessments — its grand list — on the average accurately represent fair market value.

When a CLA is above 100%, that means the community’s assessments are higher overall than fair market value, so the CLA is used to lower the school tax rate. But when a CLA is below 100%, it means a community’s assessments are lower overall than fair market value. Then, the CLA is applied to increase school tax rates. The rate is divided by the CLA; for example, a pre-CLA rate of $1.50 per $100 of assessed value in a town with a CLA of 80% would then have a rate of $1.875 (that’s $1.50 divided by 0.8)

Orwell’s CLA currently stands at 89.14%, according to the Department of Taxes. 

Based on tentative numbers crunched by SVUUSD, Orwell would be looking at an estimated homestead property tax rate of $1.5176 with passage of the proposed FY’25 budget. That would represent a 20-cent bump from the current rate of $1.3151, or a 15.3% increase. So a home in Orwell appraised at $300,000 would see a tax increase of around $558.

The CLA factor is entirely responsible for a projected FY’25 homestead education property tax rate impact of $185.95 per $100,000 in property value in Orwell, officials said. Absent the CLA influence, the budget would drive a $25.15 decrease per $100,000 in property value, according to district officials.

It should be noted, however, that many Orwell taxpayers pay based on the value of their homesite and their income, and would therefore pay less than the above.

Resident households earning less than $135,000 a year can be eligible to receive property tax credits applied to their property tax bill. The education credit amount is equal to the difference between the house site (house and up to 2 acres) education property taxes for the prior year, and education taxes based on income. During the 2023 tax year, 69% of Orwell homeowners received an education tax credit through the state of Vermont, according to the Department of Taxes.

Meanwhile, 13% of Orwell homeowners in 2023 Homeowners reported a household income of less than $47,000, which qualified them for an additional, municipal tax credit.

Orwell Village School currently serves 119 children; the town has a total of 200 preK-12 children enrolled in the SVUUSD.

State law requires school boards to persist in getting a taxpayer-approved budget. If the district hasn’t passed a budget by July 1, it can borrow up to 87% of its last passed budget in order to meet immediate financial obligations.

NO RIF NOTICES

Unlike several other school districts, SVUUSD didn’t send out Reduction In Force (RIF) notices to staff and educators to gird for potential layoffs.

“Quite honestly, we don’t have staff we could RIF, unless people wanted class sizes of 30 students,” Olsen-Farrell said.

At only 87% of FY-24 funding levels, the district would be left around $6 million short of meeting basic needs, according to Olsen-Farrell.

“We wouldn’t be doing any summer programming, no more athletics or any of that stuff until we have a budget on place,” she said. “There wouldn’t be any discretionary spending at all. We wouldn’t be purchasing supplies, no maintenance of our schools over the summer. We would just be focused on what we need to provide, in terms of basic education for students in the classroom.

“We wouldn’t want to be in a position of running a deficit,” she added.

Peter Stone is an Orwell representative to the SVUUSD board. He’s hoping his neighbors get out to the polls on May 9. He personally believes that any further cuts to the proposed budget could substantially affect the programming.

“There’s not a lot of leeway in our budget. If we start taking more stuff out, it starts hurting the children,” he said.

“When it comes to taxes and paying for education, the first thing people want to do is cut education,” Stone added. “They say they can’t afford it. But we can’t afford not to educate our kids.”

An informational meeting on the budget is set for Tuesday, May 7, at 6:30 p.m. in the Fair Haven Union High School band room. Voting in Orwell will take place on May 9 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Orwell Town Clerk’s office.

A complete overview of SVUUSD budget documents can be found at tinyurl.com/nfbz58hk.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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