EAST MONTPELIER — Voters in the five-town, six-school Washington Central Unified Union School District will be asked to spend less to run their pre-K-12 school system when they go to the polls in March.
Responding to declining enrollment and economic uncertainty associated with the pandemic, the School Board unanimously approved a budget request with a bottom line just under $35 million. That’s nearly $450,000 less than the spending plan voters in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester collectively approved last year — a reduction of 1.26%.
When you factor in retiring Business Administrator Lori Bibeau’s latest revenue projections the net impact on taxes associated with the proposed budget would drop roughly $355,000 — a year-over-year reduction of 1%.
Board members were told the spending proposal reflects deep cuts, reduces staffing through attrition, and leans heavily on the district’s cash reserves, while preserving programs and meeting the needs of students.
The fact that it enjoyed the unanimous support of school-based administrators, swayed some skeptics who feared a letter signed by all of them might not reflect their true feelings.
Superintendent Bryan Olkowski assured the board that was not the case during its virtual meeting Wednesday night and Steven Dellinger-Pate detailed what was characterized as a “bottom-up” process.
Dellinger-Pate, principal at U-32 Middle and High School, said he helped draft the supportive letter which he said reflected the consensus of his fellow principals, as well as Olkowski and other members of his leadership team.
Olkowski again reminded the board that enrollment has slowly, but steadily been declining in the district and — pandemic or no — that trend is forecast to continue for the foreseeable future.
“Ultimately, we’re trying to be responsive to the changing enrollment of our district while also trying to be strategic in moving the district forward,” he said.
Board Chairman Scott Thompson applauded that effort, likening the proposed budget to “steering into a skid,” by right-sizing staff in a way that is both intentional and humane.
“It lets us keep control over our future that we might not otherwise be able to retain if we were to fight against the trends that we’re seeing,” Thompson said, adding: “It’s not just student numbers; there are other factors that are going to be stressing us in years to come and I think as a board we’re going to have to take a cold, hard look at how to shrink gracefully.”
Thompson said that is a conversation that could conceivably involve administrative reorganization and restructuring — or even closing schools. He said the budget proposal voters will be asked to approve would buy time for that to be a thoughtful conversation without depriving students of educational opportunities they are now receiving.
The latter was an important consideration for board members, who welcomed more detail about the proposed budget reductions and were comforted to hear the latest draft enjoyed broad support from school administrators.
Though many of the proposed cuts were the same as those presented to the Board last month, Olkowski outlined $300,000 in administrative adjustments that were recently agreed to. They will involve not filling two vacant positions, restructuring special education services to include a full-time social worker that would be eligible for reimbursement and using the surplus funds to cover early retirement expenses that had previously been included in the operating budget.
Last year, the board incentivized early retirement in a move that will create some short-term expenses while yielding savings.
In all, 15 eligible employees — seven professional staff and eight support staff — accepted the early retirement option and the proposed budget contemplates leaving the equivalent of 4.4 of those positions vacant — a savings of roughly $390,000.
The budget also assumes an additional 6.3 currently vacant positions won’t be filled saving an additional $476,000 and 2.3 staff members are paid for with grants instead of through the regular operating budget for a savings of roughly $164,000. Staff turnover account for $149,000 in additional salary and benefit savings.
According to the budget, some of those savings would be offset by new hires — most of them linked to the plan to restructure special education. Roughly 9.5 positions fall into that category at a combined cost of more than $550,000.
The net savings associated with the proposed staffing changes — roughly $626,000 — goes a long way toward offsetting the $685,000 increases associated with the district’s contractual obligations to its employees.
The budget also assumes more than $440,000 in special education savings that would be partially offset by a loss of an estimated $37,000 in reimbursements.
In addition to adopting the budget, board members unanimously agreed to reserve roughly $500,000 in surplus funds to cover the cost of the early retirement program and another $190,000 to pay for the district’s COVID-19 coordinator and the equivalent of a full-time nurse in the event those positions aren’t eligible for federal funding.
Use of the surplus for those one-time expenses was viewed as a prudent move by board members, who were told the first year cost of the early retirement program will be $144,000.
Although the board is proposing to reduce spending, Bibeau is projecting the district’s equalized tax rate would increase 3.9 cents. Before adjusting for each town’s common level of appraisal (CLA), she she said that rate compares favorably to the projected 9.5-cent state average.
The CLA — a property value-based metric the state uses to equalize education tax rates from one town to the next — affected each town differently.
Berlin’s new CLA climbed from 103.89% to 108.77% of fair market value — an increase that, according to Bibeau’s calculations will allow for a 5.4 cent rate reduction for homeowners in that community.
The increase in Montpelier’s CLA was less pronounced — it went from 93.82% to 94.18% of fair market value. Bibeau is projecting the tax rate there would increase by 3.4 cents, which is 0.5 cents less than the equalized rate for the district.
Each of the other three towns saw their CLAs drop — some more than others — and would pay more than the equalized rate.
The reduction is most pronounced in Middlesex, where the CLA slipped by more than 3% — from 98.93% to 95.89% of fair market value — resulting in a corresponding 9.8-cent increase in projected tax rate.
In Calais, the CLA dropped from 95.61% to 93.93%, pushing the projected rate increase from 3.9 cents to 7.5 cents.
Based on Bibeau’s calculations, Worcester’s homestead rate would increase by 5.3 cents — with 1.4 cents of that increase tied to the fact that its CLA dropped from 100.35% to 99.55% of fair market value.
School Director Kari Bradley said communicating those differences will be a challenge — particularly in Middlesex and Calais.
Bradley, who lives in Calais, was among those board members who were initially wary about the prospect of proposing a budget that called for spending less than this year. However, after seeing the CLA-adjusted tax rates, he said he supported the spending plan.