BARRE — That was easy.
Simply by following the law, school officials in Barre have managed to trim more than a penny from the tax rate hike they were projecting less than a month ago.
Vermont school districts are required to either use any audited surplus as revenue in the budget for the following fiscal year or ask voters for permission to use that money for a specifically stated purpose.
The three school districts in the Barre Supervisory Union initially did neither, though that problem has now been corrected. School board members in Barre Town are asking voters to place the undesignated portion of their surplus in a fund to stabilize taxes in future years, while the Barre and Spaulding High School boards have elected to provide more immediate relief.
Lucas Herring, chairman of the Barre City School Board, said Monday night that just over $113,000 in surplus money — including the $91,464 fund balance realized at Barre City Elementary and Middle School — is now being used as budgetary revenue. The result, he said, is a lower rate increase than had been projected heading into next month’s Town Meeting Day elections.
Herring announced the adjustment on a night when school board members sought to explain and promote the $12.4 million budget proposal they will ask voters to approve next month. They also were alerted to a potential deficit and quibbled over whether to rescind their recent decision to enlist a grant writer in hopes of advancing a playground project at the city’s pre-kindergarten-through-8 school.
School board member Sonya Spaulding was the first to defend the budget, suggesting the double-digit spending increase sounds worse than it is.
Spaulding used the words “bare bones” to describe a plan. “I think it’s a very fair budget,” she said.
According to Spaulding, most of the proposed spending increase — roughly $1 million — can be traced to costs associated with serving students with special needs. Those costs are expected to climb from the nearly $3 million figure that was used for budgeting purposes a year ago to roughly $4 million during the fiscal year that starts July 1.
“It’s one-third of our budget that we are spending on students with special needs,” Spaulding said, suggesting the numbers used for this year more accurately reflect the anticipated cost of providing expensive services that do generate some offsetting revenue.
According to her, the $325,000 increase for regular education — a rise of about 4 percent, bringing the figure to $8.41 million — is reasonable. However, if voters reject the proposed budget, that portion is likely where the board will have to look for cuts. Most special education services are required under federal law.
According to Herring, 24 percent of the school’s students qualify for special education services, and the district has picked up at least three more in the past month.
Business Manager Mark Lyons said special education costs are running about $600,000 over budget. As a result, he said, discretionary spending has been frozen at the school, and he is projecting the district will end the year with a $257,000 deficit.
Lyons said his year-end projection will come into sharper focus in the next few weeks and most if not all of the projected deficit could be wiped out.
Most board members said they stood solidly behind the spending plan, and some went out of their way to defend a decision to include funding for an assistant principal this year.
School board member Anita Ristau said the extra administrative position, which has long been discussed, was important at a school that has chronically failed to make adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Ristau said the school’s co-principals are stretched thin dealing with disciplinary issues and unable to fulfill their roles as the school’s educational leaders.
“I know it’s an addition that people don’t like to see, but it’s not a frivolous one,” she said.
Despite the fact that one in four students requires special education services that account for $1 of every $3 the board is proposing to spend, Herring said Barre’s cost per pupil is among the lowest in the state, ranking 242 out of 260 districts.
The board also was told that the $2,500 it recently authorized for a grant writer wouldn’t cover the actual costs, which are expected to be between $4,000 and $6,000.
Board member Rachel Piper, who questioned the unbudgeted expense at the time it was made, said her mind wasn’t changed given word of a looming deficit and the fact that the grant that has been targeted would require a local match that hasn’t been planned for.
“I just am tired of spending money that’s not there,” she said.
Piper, who will be stepping down next month, wasn’t alone. Ristau said she also had reservations about increasing the authorization to pursue a grant that board members were just hearing about.
“We have very little information, yet we’re going out spending money when we’re in deficit,” she said.
After a brief discussion, board members essentially agreed to rescind their earlier authorization and forward the matter to the Barre Supervisory Union board. That board, they agreed, might decide to cover the cost of the grant application process on behalf of elementary schools in Barre and Barre Town.
Board members also engaged in a protracted philosophical discussion about students with disciplinary issues and tabled action on a proposed firearms policy.
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