The school board has begun the work of evaluating factors that will influence the FY 19 budget development process. At their November 1 meeting, business manager John Aubin gave an overview of board policy 2.5, planning and budgeting to provide the board with a solid background on budget development. Some of the goals the district is responsible for considering in this policy are financial planning that minimizes risk, establishing and regularly evaluating the stewardship plan, labor contracts, and the capital reserve. In addition to this policy, the board also discussed guidance from the Agency of Education and how this, among other items, could influence the budget brought to taxpayers in March.
The school board uses Excel budget worksheets throughout their process which allow for numbers to easily be swapped in and out as they become available. Although the number of equalized pupils, the common level of appraisal (CLA), tuition students, and several other factors will not be available from the state until late December, Aubin did his best to plug estimates into budget worksheets to give the board an idea of the challenges ahead. In Aubin’s “what if” scenario number one, he entered estimates of what the common level of appraisal and property yield might be for FY 19. Aubin added the assumption that the statewide education tax rate will increase by eight cents, as the state has been predicting. In this scenario, without any increase to the school budget, the tax rate would still increase by 5.88 percent.
In the next document, Aubin made several more parameter assumptions including an estimate of the number of equalized pupils going up by 23, adding five tuition students, decreasing the CLA slightly, and increasing the FY 18 school budget by two percent. This scenario resulted in a 7.43 percent tax increase.
Neither scenario painted a good picture for the taxpayer or the school board, which is already facing budget challenges going into this year, including a potential increase in health care premiums between 10 and 16 percent, the potential for the Governor to call for level funded budgets, and the Act 85 health insurance payback in the current year of $164,086. However, the upside of doing worksheets so early in the process, Aubin explained, is that it shows how much hard work the board and administration has yet to do. Steve Wisloski made it clear, and fellow board members agreed, that the district will need to be communicating as soon as possible to the community that a minimum of a five percent tax increase is on the horizon, in addition to explaining what factors they can and cannot control, for example, making it clear that the tax rate is set by the state, not the school district.
The board also discussed recent Agency of Education statements that call for increases in student/teacher ratios as a long term cost saving measure, since in many schools throughout the state, enrollment continues to decline. The agency offers questions boards can ask themselves when budget planning to help evaluate their staffing needs such as, how many staff members, administrators, and teachers per pupil are truly needed? This is an exercise South Burlington evaluates often, especially at the elementary level, where as recently as September, teachers needed to be added due to growing class sizes. Where things get even more challenging though, is in terms of evaluating paraprofessionals. This is where South Burlington has been at the forefront of addressing the issue of students affected by trauma and their needs for additional assistance. In the budget that passed in June, funding for a pilot program to address this issue and hopefully, save funds in future budgets was approved. The program is only beginning its third month; therefore, significant data is not yet available.
The number of students in the school system affected by trauma has continued to see an increase. Data provided during the last budget season showed that at both Chamberlin and Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School, the percentages of students affected by trauma were just over 20. Preliminary high school data indicated a number of 12.42 percent, and Rick Marcotte Central School and Orchard School percentages were at 7.22 and 6.19 percent respectively. LaLonde explained that the leading causes are poverty and divorce, followed by exposure to alcohol and drug abuse. The impacts of these adverse experience on the developing brain are gradually becoming more well known.
A board certified behavior analyst oversees South Burlington’s pilot program whose goal is to allow quick crisis response, a dedicated space for de-escalation, and strong behavior support plans. Success will be measured by examining changes in the number of school suspensions, expulsions, office referrals, and restraints/seclusions.
The board agreed this is only one item they will likely need to justify to voters. Young also said this will not be the year for additions and innovation, given the challenges ahead. Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald, however, said that when one talks about not being able to add, they are usually referring to last year’s budget as a baseline instead of a zero base. She suggested “evaluating the old too...is it still applicable to our model of teaching/learning? After a thorough evaluation, do we still need all of these items? South Burlington offers a competitive program for students and it attracts families. It’s one of the hallmarks of our city, but we can’t be wed to a historic way of doing things, if isn’t serving the community at large anymore.”
At the next board meeting, November 15, the board will discuss a three-year focus on the stewardship plan and funding recommendations. Discussion of a potential bond will take place as a way of spreading out the cost of maintenance and upgrades over a 20-year period rather than including the funding for such items in the operating budget.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent