On March 2, 2020

“Vote ‘no’ on the school district budget” Haff says

Selectman and School District Board Member Jim Haff is asking Windsor Central School District voters to vote “no” on the school district budget.

At Killington’s Informational Meeting, Monday, March 2, he told a crowd of about 60 that the district administration presented voters with a budget with no line items this year for the first time. Instead there is “just a bottom line figure of $21 million,” he said. Adding that it’s very difficult for the board to hold the Superintendent accountable if the budget isn’t broken down by department (minimally). Haff said “I will be voting ‘no’ for the first time probably ever on a school budget.”

Haff is one of two who represent Killington on the district board, he also sits on the finance committee of that board.

When asked directly by a citizen if the budget problems were caused by mismanagement, Haff said “well… yes!” Then went on to clarify that a former district finance employee had not entered any journal entries for 2019, which has severely delayed the audit for that year. Haff said they now expect that audit to be completed this month and are projecting upwards of $1 million deficit.

When asked why Killington’s school tax was going up 8 cents this year, Haff explained that the school portion of the Homestead tax rate is $1.6830 — 5.1 cents up over last year, or up 3.16%, from $1.6299 in FY20—prior to the common level of appraisal (CLA) being factored in. (See localized rates below).

 

(Editor’s note: Story below was posted Jan. 22, 2020. It was written prior to the revised student count, which necessitated additional cuts to stay below the threshold. That story is here.)

WCSD budget up, but only half of district towns will see tax hike

By Polly Mikula

The Windsor Central School District (WCSD) is working on a proposed total budget of $21.9 million for FY2021, a $3.8 million increase.

When local revenue sources (grants, donations, tuition, surplus) are deducted, the budget to taxpayers comes down to $17,096,833 for FY2021, representing a $1,293,084 increase, or 8.18% over the current FY20 budget of $15,803,749.

Some of this year’s increase is a result of Barnard joining the district, which is offset by the additional pupils the district receives funding to educate.

When the district’s 913 equalized students are divided by the proposed net budget, WCSD education spending rate is up 4.1% or $740 per student, at $18,733.

The budget is $23 shy of the penalty phase, which begins at $18,756 per equalized pupil. After that threshold, for every additional dollar the district would have to return a dollar to the state, so to get $1 requires $2 to be raised.

The district’s 913 equalized pupils number 23 more than the prior year. The equalized pupil tally is derived from a trailing average of enrollment over the past three years, and is a number the board has been trying to nail down specifically over the past few weeks, but has yet to receive Agency of Education (AOE) approval for 913 students (Brad James at AOE had given the district an evaluation of 903 equalized pupils, but the district is assuming its appeal for 913 will be accepted). The actual number of equalized pupils in the district is 881. There are also 114 students tuitioned from other Vermont school districts or privately funded and nine students sponsored by the district (neither of which count toward the state’s equalized pupil tally), for a total of 1,004 students that the district educates as of Jan. 6, 2020, according to the Superintendent’s Report from the Jan. 13 board meeting.

The district budget accounts for all costs associated with educating students in Woodstock, Killington, Bridgewater, Pomfret, Plymouth, Reading and Barnard, including maintaining its six school buildings: the union middle school/high school and the SU building in Woodstock as well as four operating elementary schools in Woodstock, Killington, Reading and Barnard, and some costs associated with maintaining The Prosper Valley School in Pomfret.

Factor contributing to the rise

$914,124 more for the FY21 Barnard Budget now brought over to the WCSD budget (assuming voters in the district vote to accept Barnard into WCSD on Town Meeting Day.)

$529,000 more in contractual obligations. This includes $125,000 for early retirement.

$425,000 more for health insurance costs. Premiums increased 12.9% statewide.

$135,000 more for budget oversights from FY19 (i.e. snow removal, audit costs)

$125,000 more for the building and grounds maintenance fund. If projected increases to revenues come to fruition, the total fund could increase to $250,000, Superintendent Mary Beth Banios told the board, Jan. 13.

Act 46 incentive dropped from $0.06 to $0.04 for FY21, as scheduled.

New revenue sources

$55,000 more is anticipated this year after the board voted to raise out-of-district tuition by $500 to $18,500/student starting FY21. This money would be put toward the building and grounds fund.

$35,000 more is anticipated if a new athletic participation fee ($50/sport/student) is enacted. $20,000 of that would be applied toward the building and grounds fund.

Significant costs not included

Remediation costs for the The Prosper Valley School in South Pomfret, which the board voted to fund $200,000 forward on Jan. 13. A  presentation by Banios stated “the next phase of repair at The Prosper Valley school be funded through the operating budget, loans, and/or private donations.” But no adjustment has yet to be made to the budget for FY21 to incorporate this cost.

Potential surpluses or deficits from FY2019. The audit for FY2018 was completed Jan. 10, 2020, and books and audit for FY2019 are “currently being reviewed,” according to Banios. “We expect to close the books and complete the audit by the end of January 2020,” but other board members anticipate that audit won’t be complete until much later.

“That’s crucial information as it could be a significant amount. We’re looking at possibly a $100,000-plus deficit from past years and that would put us over the spending threshold and into the penalty phase without cuts to offset those increases,” WCSD director Jim Haff said.

Localized rates

The school budget portion of the Homestead tax rate is $1.6830 — 5.1 cents up over last year, or up 3.16%, from $1.6299 in FY20—prior to the common level of appraisal (CLA) being factored in. (CLA is an assessment from the state on each town’s property value that is intended to adjust for accurate market values year to year.)

Once CLA is factored in, some district town’s tax rates will increase ,while others will decrease.

  • Woodstock’s homestead tax rate will see the highest increase: 11.1 cents higher than last year with a rate of $1.7781 per $100 of property value.
  • Killington follows with a 8.7-cent increase to $1.7262.
  • Plymouth is right behind with an 8.5-cent increase to $1.6952.
  • Reading will see a modest 1.1-cent increase to $1.5949.
  • On the other side, Pomfret will see the largest decrease: 7.6 cents off at $1.5979.
  • Bridgewater follows with 7.1 cents off with a rate of $1.7120.
  • Barnard, which just voted to join the district on Dec. 10, will see a decrease of 2.4 cents to $1.7162.

To put this in perspective, a $300,000 house in Woodstock would see a $333 increase for the school district budget (and pay $5,334 in school taxes) while a person in Pomfret also with a $300,000 house will save -$228 compared to last year (and pay $4,794 in school taxes).

“For those of us who live in towns where the property value is increasing, our tax rates will be going up greater than the rates the district has control of,” said Haff. “For those who live in towns with declining property values, you may see a decrease in your taxes even though the school budget is up. That’s the implication of the CLA,” he explained. “If you look at your house as an investment, the reason why your taxes are down is because the value of your investment has decreased with the current CLA evaluation. On the other side, if your taxes are going up, it’s because your house investment is now worth more,” Haff continued.

Work in progress

The WCSD finance committee has a meeting Thursday, Jan. 23, and the full district school board will meet Monday, Jan. 27, at which point they are expected to vote on a final budget to be warned for Town Meeting Day, March 2.

However, without the FY19 audit complete to know potential carryover deficits, the actual per pupil count confirmed by Brad James at AOE, and a funding source for the $200,000 committed to Pomfret for rehabilitation, many members of the board are wary of big swings in the current budget projections — swings that could easily put the district over the penalty threshold and significantly increase taxes levied.

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