EAST MONTPELIER — The board handling the state-ordered transition from the Washington Central Supervisory Union to the new pre-K-12 school district that would mirror its five-town boundaries has taken care of its principle piece of business. During its penultimate meeting this week board members unanimously agreed to recommend a $34 million budget that would finance the operation of elementary schools in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester, as well as jointly owned U-32 Middle and High School to a new 10-member school board that will be elected on May 21. That board, which will include at least five – and possibly six – members of the transitional board is expected to swiftly warn a budget vote in all five towns for June 25.
Five members of the transitional board – Vera Frazier from Berlin, Scott Thompson from Calais, Flor DDiaz-Smith and Lindy Johnson from East Montpelier, and Chris McVeigh from Middlesex – are all running unopposed. A sixth member, Dorothy Naylor from Calais, is running against fellow school board member Christopher Cadorette in a race that – like the budget – will be collectively decided by voters in all five towns.
While waiting for the new board to be elected the transitional board, which is composed of two members from each of the six boards that are set to be replaced on July 1, has been laying the groundwork for the looming governance shift.
Board members took two more steps in that in that direction this week by authorizing the administrators to roll out a recently negotiated change in pension benefits for some employees across the supervisory union and settling on the budget they will recommend to the new board.
Members made no adjustments to the spending proposal, which is a compilation of voter-approved budgets in all six school districts and accounts for costs – more than $4.4 million – that are now incurred by the supervisory union, but completely offset by revenue it receives. Under the state-ordered merger, that revenue will flow directly to the district, which must reflect the corresponding costs in the bottom line of its budget.
Members underscored the importance of explaining the “accounting change” that won’t have any effect on education spending or the tax rate for the new district. They also got their first peek at projected tax rates for the five towns – before and after being adjusted to reflect each community’s current Common Level of Appraisal, or CLA.
The CLA is part a market-based calculation that measures how close property in any given community is assessed to fair market value and is used by the state to equalize school tax burdens in districts across Vermont.
Based on the $34 million budget they’re recommending, board members were told the projected equalized tax rate for the Washington Central Unified Union School District for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is $1.754-per-$100-assessed property value.
That’s lower than the current CLA-adjusted rates in East Montpelier (1.922) and Middlesex (1.81), and higher than those in Berlin ($1.668), Calais (1.694) and Worcester ($1.738).
Based on the latest projections, while Berlin’s CLA-adjusted rate would climb 4.9 cents under the proposed merger it would be the only community with and education tax rate – $1.717 – that is lower than the equalized rate – $1.754.
In Calais, where school officials were projecting an 8-cent rate hike based on budgets that were separately approved for the local elementary school and U-32, the projected increase is now 12.3 cents and the CLA-adjusted rate would be $1.817.
School officials in East Montpelier had been projecting a 2.7-cent rate reduction if the merger was delayed or derailed. The CLA-adjusted tax rate there is expected to drop 8.2 cents instead. The new rate would be $1.84.
Middlesex appears to be the biggest winner. School officials there had projected a 6.2-cent rate hike and are now looking at a .7-cent reduction – a 6.9 cent swing. The new CLA-adjusted rate there would be $1.803.
By contrast, Worcester is the biggest loser. School officials there were projecting a 2.3-cent rate reduction if the status quo were somehow maintained. Instead the town is facing a 5.5-cent increase. That’s a 7.7-cent swing though Worcester’s CLA-adjusted tax rate of $1.793 would be the second lowest in the district.
The transitional board will meet one final time next Wednesday and is expected to resume its discussion of possible amendments to articles of agreement that would otherwise be imposed on the merged district.
The board again wrestled with one possible change that would dictate the terms under which a school could be closed in the future. That issue produced a series of split decisions ever time it was raised by a committee tasked with proposing possible amendment and that didn’t change when the board took it up this week.
Based on a straw poll a narrow majority of the committee, which was missing Chairman Matthew DeGroot, expressed support for a modified version of a proposal that has produced similarly mixed results in the past.
Chris McVeigh introduced the latest wrinkle by proposing that any plan to close a school would require favorable votes in successive years by the community where it is located. Six of the members present said they could support that plan, five said viewed it as an excessive protection.
The earlier proposal would have required a single vote from an affected community, while an alternative would have extended the two-year moratorium on closing schools to five years.
There is no plan to close any of the Washington Central schools and it is far from clear whether one would ever be proposed. However, some have expressed concerns that small schools – like those in Calais and Worcester – could be vulnerable in the future.
The board will resume and conclude its discussion with respect to the articles of agreement when it meets Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at the supervisory union office on Gallison Hill Road.