On January 29, 2020

Windsor Central presents tight school budget, up 8%

By Curt Peterson

The Windsor Central Unified School District Board approved a very tight budget for voters in the seven participating towns to consider on Monday, Jan. 27.

There were two dissenting votes among the 12 board members present.

The combined district FY2021 budget totals about $17 million, which is 8.18% more than the current budget of $15.8 million.

In March voters will also decide if Barnard Academy will join the unified district, so the budget presentation will include the above total, and three budgets including separate Barnard and Windsor Central Supervisory Union budgets. The latter figures add up to the same total, and will be pertinent only if voters reject the Barnard merger, which is considered unlikely.

During the formal budget presentation, the finance committee reviewed a number of avenues they had explored in order to direct additional funds to buildings and grounds maintenance and to also add a line item of at least $50,000 for the next phase of the The Prosper Valley School (TPVS) remediation work. The committee eliminated a yet to be determined position at Woodstock Union High School.

In a news release after the meeting, Superintendent Mary Beth Banios said health insurance and contractual obligations are the primary reasons the budget has increased.

A “pay-to-play” fee of $50 per sport per year per student is included in the budget proposal, with a voluntary application for financial relief. Estimated revenue from the athletics fee is $20,000, which the board now has funneling to The Prosper Valley School remediation project.

TVPS rehabilitation costs, estimated at $200,000, will be funded to a small degree from budget items, with the remainder coming from fundraising and possible borrowing.

Athletic programs cost $425,000 of the annual district budget, according to Finance and Operations Director Mike Concessi.

Woodstock resident Elaine Lively opposed the pay-to-play fee, saying burdens parents shoulder already are significant. She also questioned diversion of the fee to non-athletic purposes.

“This is a one-year, pilot program,” board co-chair Paige Hiller responded, “and not necessarily a permanent thing.”

Other Vermont school districts have historically charged athletic fees, according to proponents.

Woodstock representative Malena Agin, who voted against the budget, said she also feels it unfair to ask families of athletes to pay a fee in addition to other commitments to the athletic programs, particularly if the funds raised are not going to athletic expenses.

Reading representative Adam Ameele also dissented over the pay-to-play fee issue.

Killington representative Jim Haff raised the issue of “equalized pupil” count. Haff has championed postponing the date for voting on the budget until after the formal pupil count numbers are published by the state, which often occurs after Town Meeting Day in March.

The state calculates the number of equalized pupils by averaging the number of students in a district between the 11th and 31st days of the last two school years.

Haff said the last official figure provided by the Department of Education was 904 students, but the budget is based on a student count of 913 students and would avoid a “penalty phase.” The proposed figure is just below the threshold in per student spending that would cause WCUSD to pay $2 for every $1 raised over the mandated limit of $18,756.

At 904 students the budget would result in penalties adding an additional four cents to the education tax rate, Haff said.

Superintendent Mary Beth Banios and Concessi both said that they have been pressuring state education Finance Manager Brad James for two months to formally correct the 904 student estimate to 913 in writing, but with no success. They are confident the confirmation will come, they said, but do not have it in hand and don’t know when to expect it.

The approved budget proposal figure has to be in the hands of local officials by Thursday, Jan. 30, Board secretary Rayna Bishop said, in order to be printed in the town reports.

Haff, who serves on the finance committee, was reluctant to vote for a budget based on unconfirmed student count, which might result in additional penalties that would increase the educational tax rate if the lower student count is deemed accurate.

At Haff’s insistence, Concessi produced an email from James that acknowledged the 904 number was a calculation error and promised formal revised figures which have not yet materialized. Most of the Board, including Haff, had not seen that email before Monday night.

Banios pointed out that, if the student count becomes a problem, the Board could advise voters to reject the budget, and a new budget reflecting fewer students could be produced that would avoid the per student cost penalty.

On that basis the board approved the budget 10-2.

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