On January 8, 2020

School district faces spending challenges

By Curt Peterson

Windsor Central Modified Unified Union School District (WCUSD) finance committee members are struggling with their fiscal year 2021 primary goal of avoiding a “penalty situation” for per-student overspending.

The state set the per equalized pupil spending cap at $18,756. The final district budget will be divided by the number of equalized, non-tuitioned students – for every dollar in excess of the cap the district would have to return a dollar to the state, so to increase $1 in the penalty phase requires $2 to be raised.

The state uses the average number of equalized pupils over the past completed three years to determine the total district budget cap. Killington board rep Jim Haff reminded fellow board members at a Jan. 3 meeting that because of the three-year averaging formula the district is getting credit for a slightly higher student population than it actually has, or will have in the future. Fewer students will mean growing per pupil spending, adding pressure on even a moderately rising budget.

Haff said the pupil count has been a moving target during the budget process. The latest figure used is 913 equalized pupils, though Brad James at the Agency of Education had set the district number at 903. Haff asked Finance and Operations Manager Mike Concessi to verify its accuracy.

“I really want to believe that is a good number,” Concessi said, of the 913 figure.

Concessi said the Agency of Education originally made an error estimating the district’s pupils, and he is waiting for a written correction.

Unfinished audits of FY2018 and FY2019 results are also a major budgeting roadblock – the board won’t know if they will have to incorporate a deficit or a surplus from those years when they create the FY2021 budget.

Haff cited White River Unified District’s audit of a previous year that showed a $455,000 deficit due to overestimated revenue and underestimated food service costs. He warned that WCUSD’s audits could produce an ugly surprise.

“Summaries for these years could either help us or kill us,” Haff said.

Concessi said he is confident 2018’s final numbers are accurate. He’s waiting for auditors’ paperwork to sign off on it, but did not have a summary showing negative, neutral or positive results relative to the budget.

His team is still making revenue journal entries for FY2019, he said. Once they are done the accounts will be sent to the auditors for review.

Pomfret board rep Patti Kuzmikas noted funding for a new HVAC system necessary to reopen The Prospect Valley School, closed since September 2018, is not included anywhere in the proposed FY2021 budget.

The estimated cost of the system is over $100,000. Pomfret resident Bob Crean has suggested the board put off the HVAC installation, do a structural “deep clean,” and retest to see if drainage and repair work already done has solved the mold and moisture problem.

“A decision has to be made,” Kuzmikas said, “where the money will come from to open the school next year, or whether the district will give the school back to the town.”

The committee agreed the board should make a decision at its Jan. 13 meeting.

Haff also noted that an appropriate allocation for capital maintenance for the district’s buildings is not included in the proposed budget, noting that it has been a few years now since a proper budget allocation has been included causing rising deferred maintenance costs, particularly at the high school.

District Superintendent Mary Beth Banios has suggested enhancements that would add to FY2021 expenditures, including increased Spanish instruction and permanent floating substitute teachers.

Haff and Concessi presented figures showing that the proposed budget is “more than tight” without adding expenses, and recommending decreasing rather than increasing expenses.

Additional revenue ideas included small fees from parents of students taking part in athletic teams, inviting local seniors to grant-funded weekly meals with the students, and asking towns to take over some campus maintenance, such as plowing.

“These are all just ideas, and not things we are planning at this time,” Banios said.

Athletic programs cost $425,000 in the FY2021 budget. Concessi said other districts commonly require fees to help support athletics.

Concessi explained that WCUSD pays food service expenses directly from general funds, then applies the cost to the food service budget, resulting in the deficit. For accounting, other districts transfer money from general funds to the food service, then pay the expenses, making their books look as if they aren’t incurring a deficit, he said.

WCUSD has a low number of meals served on a “free or reduced cost” basis to financially qualified students as compared to other districts. Federal funds reimburse districts for such meals, so WCUSD receives less funding per capita. WCUSD received just $127,000 in meal funding for FY2020.

Jennifer Iannantuoni, Killington board rep and district board co-chair, suggested having joint meetings with Select Board members and town managers to give them a sense of ownership and responsibility in district budget issues.

“Any school expenses the towns can absorb will help reduce the education tax,” Haff added, citing snow plowing as an example.

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