School Board Approves Budget Residents Will See Tax Decrease

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Thursday January 21, 2016

The school board held a previously warned meeting Monday, January 18, and amended a budget that they had set and approved the previous week. The board revisited the budget in an effort to stay abreast of the state’s last minute changes to education funding precipitated by the edict of a still evolving Act 46. Board members reviewed and approved the newly revised figures and finalized ballot language for the March vote.

Developing a budget that simultaneously meets student needs and comes in at a tax rate the community can support is a challenge every year, but this year the district also had to consider spending caps set by Act 46. The Act 46 cost containment measure enacted by the legislature initially set the maximum cost per equalized pupil for South Burlington School District at $15,174.39.  While the district’s initially approved and final amended budgets were both under the threshold, and avoid a monetary penalty, arriving at a solid figure was not easy. 

On Friday afternoon January 15, school districts across the state were notified that the formula for calculating the allowable growth threshold was being revised. Instead of being based on the full FY16 spending per pupil, it is now based on the FY16 spending per pupil minus allowable exclusions (such as debt service payments). This lowered the cap for South Burlington to $15,051.93. The district was able to increase the tuition estimate by $28,292 and increased the state aid for transportion number by $70,000. By doing this the district arrived at the spending per pupil of $15,051.93, which is at the capped rate.

On Wednesday, January 13, the school board unanimously approved their initial FY 2017 budget, which in its amended version, will be presented to the voters in March, along with two additional ballot items: establishment of a capital reserve fund ($300,000) to allot money to be used in future years to avoid cost fluctuations and Act 46 threshold implications, and a $2.5 million bond to address significant identified needs.

The total budget approved by the board comes to $46,973,703. The good news is that residents will see a tax decrease. The recently updated residential tax rate impact prior to income sensitivity will be a decrease of $36 per $100,000 of assessed value. That means the owner of a home or condo valued at $226,000 will pay $3,580, a decrease from FY ‘16 of $81 or $7 per month. The owner of a home valued at $366,000 will pay $5,798 a decrease from FY’16 of $130 or $11 per month. These figures are prior to income sensitivity.

The board and administration arrived at this budget figure after substantial discussion, particularly around the need for FTEs (full time equivalent). At the first budget meeting in January, the board reviewed a preliminary budget that included, among other items, several new hires, an HR generalist position and moving two HowardCenter clinicians from contract to employee status.
At the request of board members, Superintendent David Young came back to the board on the 13th of January to show them a budget with those positions removed. The deletion of the HR generalist position removed $78,553 from the budget and keeping the HowardCenter employees under contract saved another $27,420. While the HR services that would have been performed by a generalist are still needed, the district will contract out for those projects as they arise and have budgeted $35,000 for that purpose.

The Bond
A bond is being proposed in the amount of $2,500,000 to be financed over 20 years. Projects to be financed by the bond are primarily for ADA compliance issues and hazardous materials remediation at the middle and high school. Some of the projects included in the bond would be the Munson Field project (synthetic turf replacement, replacing the track surface, safety net at the end of the field, and field event area upgrade), window replacements, and restroom upgrades, flooring, carpet, and asbestos floor tile replacement at the middle school, removing the high school gym ceiling in conjunction with roof replacement, and coating the roof over the gymnasium.

Much discussion occurred, particularly regarding the turf field. Dan Fleming expressed an aversion to acquiring long-term debt that would exceed the length of time one of the items being bonded for (the turf field) would be usable. The average life span of a turf field is ten years. John Stewart presented, as an alternative to the bond, leasing for this item. However, figures showed that leasing the turf field would only reduce the bond to $2,187,000.

Eventually, it was agreed upon, and supported by the members of the citizens’ budget group who were present, that the bond was necessary for immediate capital needs.

Capital Reserve Fund
In terms of establishing a capital reserve fund, the opinions were mixed. The citizens’ budget group felt that presenting three ballot items may be too much for the voters, adding confusion. They agreed that the delivery and message of why this is being proposed would be important.

Bridget Burkhardt, from the citizens’ budget group thought the capital reserve may be a stretch for voters and while it could be explained in terms of the district saving money over time, the idea of “a pool of money just sitting there” could be uncomfortable for some.

Martin LaLonde pointed out that the district knows they are going to have to replace the roof at the Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School at an estimated cost of $800,000 within the next few years, therefore, setting aside the money now, during a year of a tax decrease, would present ideal timing. Toward the end of the evening, when Elizabeth Fitzgerald conducted a straw poll with board members, they all agreed that it would be wise to establish the fund. Julie Beatty suggested bumping up the figure to $440,000 while Dan Fleming thought the fund was a good idea, but not essential. The members agreed to request $300,000 to establish the reserve.

Changes in FTEs
The preliminary budget indicated an increase of 11.44 FTEs in FY 2017. The final budget shows 8.44. David Young provided the board with a list of consequences if the 8.44 positions went unfilled. The majority are due to legal requirements to meet student needs through board certified behavior analysts and paraeducators.

Former board member and resident Diane Bugbee asked the board to consider keeping the option of transitioning two HowardCenter clinicians from contract to district employees. Bugbee said “it’s more transparent to have them in house as employees and better for kids overall.” Patrick Leduc concurred.

A seven-year trend analysis provided by Young indicates there has been a growing need for ELL (English language learner) and special education services. From FY 2011 to FY 2017, the net gain of teachers, excluding ELL and special education, has been 1.37 while special education and ELL teachers and paraeducators have seen a net increase of 16.43 over the same period. Joanne Godek, Director of Educational Support Systems, said she is seeing a growing need in the areas of serving students with autism, emotional disturbances, and other health impairments, while a downward trend has been seen in speech language delay, specific learning disabilities, and developmental delays. Godek said nine percent of students in the district receive specialized services, which is about average for a district South Burlington’s size.

These increases have occurred while enrollment has gone down by 58 students and tuition student enrollment has increased by the same number over this seven year time period. While Elizabeth Fitzgerald expressed concern in this trend, David Young said the district has a responsibility to respond to the need. In some cases, one teacher is needed for one student, and while Young expressed that he does not want more people standing in front of students, there is a need to accommodate students.

In summary, Young stated that the staffing changes have been made to support all students in accordance with regulations and to maintain desirable programs. “We are a district known for positive support and ensuring that our students are ready for their next steps and work diligently to be proactive and plan for the changing requirements placed on us by state and federal mandates.”

The next meeting of the school board will be a joint meeting with the city council where budgets will be reviewed. The meeting is scheduled for January 20 at 7 p.m.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent