Commentary, Op - Ed, Opinion

Only 1% up but defeated: examining the Slate Valley school district budget before revote April 11

By Pati Beaumont

Editor’s note: The following commentary was written by Pati Beaumont, chairperson of the Slate Valley Unified Union School Board, as an open letter to the Slate Valley Unified Union School District community and published here by request.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the 2,472 individuals who exercised their right to vote on March 5. As you know, the Slate Valley Unified Union School District’s budget was defeated by 464 votes, one of the largest margins in recent history. Members of the school board have tried to gather information as to why this budget proposal, with an increase of less than 1% in spending per weighted pupil, and an equalized tax rate decrease of less than 1%, was unacceptable to 59% of our voters.

I will begin by providing some factual information about our FY25 proposed budget:

Our per pupil spending is $11,320.94 which is an increase of 0.20% from last year. This is the second lowest in the region. 

Our average student teacher ratio is 16:1, which is consistent with other regional schools. The maximum class size in accordance with the Vermont State Educational Quality Standards is 20 students for grades K-3 and 25 for grades 4-12. Increasing class size is a challenge facing all rural schools. For example, in one of our schools, three grades have less than 10 students. This obviously brings our average down. Also, we have a few K-2 grades with a total of 23-28 students in each. These numbers are too great for one class, so two classes are created, to be below the allowed maximum. 

Last year, only 19% of the expenditure budget, roughly $5.3 million, was paid for by local district taxpayers.  The remainder was paid by state and federal funds along with non-resident taxpayers.

The reason we do not mail a copy of our 36 page budget to all taxpayers is because it costs about $20,000 to do that mass mailing. If you would like detailed information, please visit our website: slatevalleyunified.org/o/svusd/page/budget, or call Slate Valley’s executive assistant, Lisa Bowen (802-265-2556), to have a copy mailed to you.

Some people think that by voting down the budget, we are sending an effective message to Montpelier. This idea is flawed for many reasons:

First, a full third of the budgets presented on March 5 were voted down, but there were districts that did not vote in March. It is likely that many budgets will pass after a second vote, thus, not raising significant concerns with our legislature. A “no” vote from SVUUSD taxpayers will not result in changes for this year, but it will send a negative message to our district students and staff.

If you are concerned about student test scores and the quality of their education, continuing to vote down our budget will force us to reduce resources, which are necessary to increase test scores.

A “no” vote on the budget will have no substantial impact on your property taxes. Your taxes are rising due to a flawed educational funding formula. It is a very complicated formula, but one of the key components is the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) on your property. Due to a number of factors, the CLA for all the SVUUSD towns is much less than it should be.  (To meet my goal of trying to explain things as simply as possible, I will not go into details about this here. Please refer to the budget presentation given during our informational meeting on March 4.)  All your educational tax dollars become part of the pool of money at the state level that is then distributed to all schools in the state.

Budgets start to be developed about a year before they are presented to the voters. Therefore, the budget contains many contractual obligations (teacher’s contracts, fuel costs, insurances, etc.), as well as some forecasting (needs for new students moving into the district, building maintenance, etc.). 

Obviously, we need to pay our financial obligations, as would any organization, or household. When a budget vote fails, it is necessary to continue revising the budget for a revote.

What happens if we continue to vote down our budget? By law, the school board must persist in developing a budget approved by the taxpayers. If the budget is not passed by July 1, 2024, we will be allowed to borrow money to meet our financial obligations. The law allows us to borrow up to “87% of our last passed budget” (for which we also must pay interest) which would result in a 21% shortfall from the currently proposed budget for FY25.

School spending mirrors local spending. It is exactly what households and businesses in our community are experiencing, an increase in food costs, fuel, rent and utilities. We [board members] do not have the power to solve the rising costs throughout our state. They are out of our control. So we will continue to revise our budget and bring it to the voters until a budget is passed. Also, each time we go through the voting process, it costs us thousands of dollars that is not allocated in our budget.

Act 127 allowed us to increase our budget by $3,000,000 without affecting the tax rate. These funds were to be reinvested to help our students achieve the desired outcome, to “level the playing field.” This money was not intended to reduce the tax rate. At this point, any further reductions to our budget will mean that this money is returned to Montpelier, where it will be allocated to other schools in the state. We will lose this money, and it will not significantly reduce our taxes.

On March 18, the school board voted to reduce our budget from $31,021,635, to $30,871,635 , eliminating three instructional assistant positions (due to students moving out of the district during the 2024-2025 school year) and a late bus run. We will bring this revised budget to you for a vote on Thursday, April 11.

It is evident that the Vermont educational funding system requires reform. The cost of educating students in our state ranks second only to New York, necessitating a stronger voice in Montpelier.

We urge you to contact our legislators and convey that our taxes are too high, despite attempts at relief through current legislation. These individuals have the power to enact changes, unlike your local school board.

Contact: Representative William Canfield wcanfield@leg.state.vt.us, Senator Brian Collamore bcollamore@leg.state.vt.us, Representative Jarrod Sammis jsammis@leg.state.vt.us, Senator David Weeks, dweeks@leg.state.vt.us, Senator Terry Williams tkwilliams@leg.state.vt.us, Addison District: Representative Joseph Andriano jandriano@leg.state.vt.us, Senator Christopher Bray cbray@leg.state.vt.us, Senator Ruth Hardy rhardy@leg.state.vt.us.

Your school board members are committed to ensuring that each and every student in the SVUUSD has the best education possible, while being fiscally frugal. We love our community and want to support each and every one of you! We truly hope that if you are uncomfortable supporting this budget you will reach out to any of your school board members with your constructive thoughts about managing the budget.

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