On March 6, 2024

Hartland School District pulls school ballot Articles 4 and 5

Follows other area districts in region


Submitted

Staff report

A number of area school districts made a last-minute decision to pull school budget articles from the Town Meeting Day ballot.

The Mount Ascutney School Board removed a 2023-24 budget proposal from an approved Town Meeting warning on Feb. 12. Strafford school officials followed three days later. Then on Feb. 27 Hartford did the same.

“Given the statewide crisis in school funding, the Board made the decision to rescind the original budget. This means that school ballots Articles 4 and 5 have been rescinded and will not be counted,” wrote Nicole Buck, chair of the Hartland School District, on the town listserv Saturday, March 2. “Our hope is that every Board in the state makes similar cuts, the total statewide tax burden will decrease and help Hartland.”

The school officials are responding to the passage of H.850, a law that allows Vermont school districts to delay their annual budget votes this winter. Lawmakers in Montpelier are encouraging the delays to give school districts time to trim their budgets and get the new information about tax implications out to voters. H.850 includes $500,000 to compensate districts for expenses related to moving budget votes, such as reprinting and mailing warnings and ballots.

The biggest change in H.850 is its repeal of the 5% property tax increase cap created by Act 127. State officials rushed to pass H.850 because the tax cap incentivized some schools to increase spending above the already high contractual increases, 16% rise in state-negotiated health care costsand  loss of federal ESSR funding, among other reasons.

But H.850 is only a temporary fix, Governor Phil Scott said after signing the bill, Feb. 22: “To be clear, this bill does not solve our property tax problem… [the bill] will only reduce rates if school boards adjust their spending accordingly and local voters approve those changes,” he said.

The last minute change in the state formulas also created unprecedented levels of uncertainty about the tax impacts of school spending.

“Essentially the playing field changed at the end of the game,” White River Valley Superintendent Jamie Kinnarney said in a recent interview with VTDigger. His business office is “working on its sixth or seventh budget draft,” he said.

Norwich board member Neil Odell explained that the way Vermont calculates and collects education funding has gotten far too complex and that’s part of the problem. “The formula is so complex that there is no linear correlation between how much you spend and what your tax rate is, and that’s hard for people to understand,” he said.

On Tuesday, Feb. 27, the Hartland District School Board held its budget presentation where it outlined cuts (included over $500,000 at the supervisory union level) to come up with a new proposed budget of $11,040,567. Additionally, the board is asking for $10,000 from the capital reserve fund to make necessary safety modifications to the playground or to completely remove it if it cannot be modified sufficiently.

Even with cuts the board was only able to reduce the tax increase to 29%. 

“This is due to the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA = 69%),” Buck wrote. “If houses in Hartland were appropriately valued (CLA = 100%), our tax rate would be nearly identical to previous years. But because our properties are valued so high, ‘we’ all need to contribute more to the state’s funding formula,” she explained. “While we vote on school budgets locally, Vermont’s taxation system is statewide and this year, the state’s formula says that Hartland residents need to pay substantially more into the state fund.”

“The CLA’s impact this year is so extreme,” she continued. “If we wanted to present no tax increase to the community, we would need to cut 25 of our 29 certified teachers. I only present this scenario to highlight the insanity of the state’s formula and how it is impacting our community. We already know that in 2022, 67% of our community receives an income-based reduction on their property taxes so one has to question the value of increasing our taxes more.”

The Hartland board is aiming to put a revised budget up for a separate vote April 2 and will hold another informational meeting before time.

“We are asking residents to look at the school budget individually and decide if the board made an appropriate budget when voting. Thank you for your support during this extremely challenging time,” Buck concluded.

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