Why vote yes on school budget?
The revote on the Montpelier Public Schools budget will take place Tuesday, April 15. I urge you to vote and to consider the following:
At our meeting March 19, the board approved reductions in the budget that was defeated by voters totaling $93,266. The board also approved the use of an additional $65,000 from the fund balance for the reduction of taxes. Those reductions, in addition to the increased revenue from the fund balance, make the total change $158,266.
The budget to be voted on Tuesday has a general funds expenditure increase of 1.73 percent. This increase includes (among many other expenses) all negotiated contract salary increases for staff, a 4.5 percent increase in health insurance costs, and the first payment of $115,000 on the principal of the bond approved in March 2013. Keeping the expenditure increase this modest was possible through the reduction of staff positions, significant changes in our special education service delivery model and other savings throughout the budget. This expenditure increase results in a likely tax increase of 8.52 percent.
So how is it that the expenditure increase is out of sync with the tax increase? Part of the reason is the common level of appraisal. Montpelier’s property values have increased, while those in much of the rest of the state have declined. Montpelier state property tax rates are adjusted upward to compensate for the greater value of properties in the city.
But a bigger factor is declining enrollment. This has affected Montpelier and many other Vermont school districts over the past decade or more. The state funds local education through per-pupil grants. Fewer students through the door means less revenue from the state. While our school district has done a good job of reducing staff as enrollments have declined, it is hard to keep costs exactly aligned with enrollment changes. Fewer students in a building do not mean lower fuel bills to heat it, or electricity bills to power it. If 12 students leave a K-12 district during a given year, it doesn’t mean you immediately need fewer custodians, kitchen staff, teachers or administrators. Unfortunately, it does mean a loss of $100,000 or so in state revenue to support our local budget.
The good news for our district is that we are beginning to see more youngsters entering Union Elementary. In just the past three years enrollment has grown from 411 to 461 students and is headed upward. Student data show that those students tend to stay in our schools. Our enrollment trend line is certainly bending and hopefully is headed upward for the future.
Montpelier is not a high-spending school district when looked at through the lens of per-pupil spending. We rank 118th of 248 districts in the state in spending per equalized pupil. Compared with districts most like our own (unified K-12 districts), we ranked 18th of 30 in budgeted expenditures per equalized pupil.
The average Montpelier Public Schools teacher salary is on par with the median in Washington County. Our class sizes are typical of those found in Vermont schools. Our student outcomes are excellent. US News ranked Montpelier High School the best high school in Vermont in 2013. Among graduates of MHS, 79 percent were accepted to a college or university in 2013. We have had three nominees for the Presidential School Program in the past two years. The new SOAR program at the high school is showing encouraging results in keeping students enthusiastically engaged in learning and remaining a part of our high school. These are students who, in the past, gained little real learning at school or simply dropped out.
I think the board has heard the concerns of those who say the tax increases of the past two years are not sustainable and that something must be done. In fact, those increases are not sustainable and, yes, something must be done. As a beginning step, the board approved the formation of a program/finance committee with the charge to “make recommendations to the board of options both within the present context of our school program as well as systemic changes that show potential to reduce or at least control costs and show promise to improve or at least maintain the quality of educational outcomes as measured by the board’s end policies.” That committee will be launched soon and will work this year so that next year’s budget process will be informed by its findings.
It is my hope that the school budget passes this time. But my greater hope is that, as a community, we can support our excellent school system into the future in a climate of civility, trust and compromise where all voices are heard and diverse perspectives are valued.
The writer is a member of the Montpelier School Board.
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