Last week Governor Phil Scott proposed that all K-12 schools throughout Vermont adopt a level-funded budget for the next fiscal year and postpone voting to adopt the budget until May. The announcement came after the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board finished a three-month-long budgeting process.
The budget that arose from that process is not level funded, and although Governor Scott has suggested that school budget votes be pushed back to May 23, the warnings for Town Meeting have to be out this week and the school budget will be on it.
Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos released a statement to all of the towns late last week to let them know that Governor Scott’s proposal is simply a suggestion; it will take some time to become legally binding, if ever.
The budget that the HUUSD Board has approved totals $36,294,313, an increase of $1,114,120 over last year’s budget or 3.2 percent above level funding. If the board did not add or take away anything from this year’s budget, it would still increase 1.5 percent over a level fund in order to meet rising labor costs.
The increase comes from a variety of added expenditures, many of which were approved by the board unanimously.
One of the largest expenditures is a new gateway science curriculum that would be implemented in Harwood’s middle school. At the January 18 meeting, Harwood’s principal Lisa Atwood explained to HUUSD Board members that the science curriculum already exists at the elementary and the high school levels. Holding off on its implementation at the middle school level leaves a glaring gap in the overall science curriculum for Valley students.
The other large expense over level service was an additional $302,108 contribution to the HUUSD maintenance reserve fund.
The board also approved the addition of a Granville bus route for $57,000, an additional full-time maintenance employee at Harwood for $37,500 and an increase in maintenance support staff to four Valley elementary schools for $20,000.
Bills were introduced in the state Senate that would make Governor Scott’s suggestion a mandate, but one has already been voted down by the Senate Education Committee. The committee’s chair said that the plan was unfair to local schools, many of which have already finalized or are in the process of finalizing their budget.
“I think it is self-evident, at this point, that it’s too late for many communities, unless they scrap all of their work including printed ballots and get rid of their Town Meeting Day vote,” said Senate Education Committee chair Phillip Baruth, “which they are highly reluctant to do.”
A spokesperson for the Scott administration expressed displeasure with the Legislature’s reaction.
“The Senate Education Committee’s straw poll results – taken after less than three minutes of testimony from the Commissioner of Finance – shows some committees are not even willing to take the time to consider these bold and decisive steps to halt unsustainable increases in property taxes and invest more in early care and learning and higher education, while keeping spending for K-12 level for one year,” said Scott’s communications director, Rebecca Kelley.
“It’s important to note that the governor is asking state government to do the same, by proposing to level fund state government’s spending, as well,” she added.
As the governor’s proposal is sorted out at the state level, the HUUSD Board will focus on their other business, as originally planned, according to Superintendent Brigid Nease. They will start work on policies and study the world language programs in the elementary schools among other priorities.
If the board were to be tasked to provide a level-funded budget they would essentially go back to the drawing board, according to Nease. Some of the expenditures may have to be taken out, but in order to get back down to a level-funded budget they would almost certainly have to look at multiple staff reductions.