EAST MONTPELIER — Earlier this month the Washington Central Unified Union School District made the final $155,000 payment on the voter-approved bond that financed a major upgrade to the U-32 Middle and High School campus 20 years ago.
However, while the district just shed the debt service associated with the bond it doesn’t appear that will have a favorable affect on the bottom line of a budget that is still in its infancy.
Debt service will drop by $155,000, according to the budget’s first draft. However, that savings would be neutralized by a plan to boost the district’s annual appropriation to its capital projects fund by the same $155,000.
The budget approved by voters in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester on Town Meeting Day included a capital fund transfer of $725,000. The first draft of the budget that would be presented to those same voters in March contemplates that transfer swelling to $880,000. The difference is the $155,000 on principle and interest the district has been paying on the bond, but no longer needs to.
That likely creates some wiggle room for the School Board, which has asked administrators to prepare a budget that reflects a 3% increase.
It isn’t a hard cap, but members general agreed 3% was a reasonable starting point, even if one would have preferred to limit the increase to less than 2% and another would have comfortably considered a 5% increase.
To put that in perspective, the current year’s budget calls for spending just under $35 million. A 2% increase would boost spending by $700,000, 3% would allow for a $1.05 million increase, and 5% would pad the budget’s bottom line by roughly $1.75 million.
Based on current staff and wage increases reflected in recently negotiated contracts and projected benefits, the district’s personnel costs would climb by more than $800,000. Nearly $675,000 is a wage-related increase for those employed at the district’s six schools and its central office. The balance is from benefits, including a projected 5.2% increase in health insurance that would add more than $35,000 to that expense.
That assumes no savings associated with staff turnover or any increases associated with hiring new positions.
It’s a “level service” budget that retains the bond payment, by re-purposing the money and transferring it to a fund to cover future capital improvements.
Responding to feedback from some of the roughly 20 residents who attended a community engagement forum, the board has asked administrators to consider enhancing the district’s music program, outdoor education options, and food service initiatives including farm to table.
Interim Superintendent Jen Miller-Arsenault said administrators will develop a budget that responds to the requested 3% cap, and take an “a la carte” approach to the proposed initiatives that would give the board the ability to incorporate one, some or all of them in a budget they are weeks away from approving for the pre-K-12 district.
Among other things, the board has asked administrators to develop a contingency plan to reduce expenses if the tax increase associated with the spending proposal turns out to be prohibitive. Key figures, including the district’s equalized pupils, the common level of appraisal in each of its five towns and the projected dollar yield aren’t yet available.