All of the towns of the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) voted together for the first time to pass one budget for all six towns and all seven schools.
The budget passed on Town Meeting Day with a co-mingled vote, 1,381 to 772, and so it will remain at $36,294,313. The budgeting process for the HUUSD Board started in October of 2016. Voters also approved the creation of a $533,959 districtwide reserve fund by a co-mingled vote of 1,642 to 508.
At the annual pre–Town Meeting held in the Harwood library on March 7, residents from any of the member towns were able to ask any last questions and field final concerns.
Washington West Supervisory Union financial director Michelle Baker gave a presentation of the final budget, including its impact on the tax rate of each town. Many of the rates saw decreases because of the 10 cent incentive that all of the towns received for merging early under the terms of Act 46. She also explained that as of July 1, 2017, the HUUSD Board would take over responsibility from the individual school boards and operate with one budget.
The equalized tax rate across the district came out to be $1.56; however, because each town has a different common level of appraisal (CLA) the effective tax rates will remain different. Baker explained that the budget increased 3.2 percent over last year primarily because of added maintenance, a new bus route to Granville, a new science curriculum for Harwood Union Middle School and anticipated salary and benefit increases.
Many of the attendees wanted to know about enrollment in the schools, which is still declining in almost all of the member towns. Moretown, Fayston, Waitsfield and Warren elementary schools are estimated to see level enrollment through this year or a slight drop. Thatcher Brook and Crossett Brook enrollments will rise though. Thatcher Brook will increase from 381 to 386 and Crossett Brook will increase from 278 to 292.
Harwood Union High School also sees a slight increase in enrollment, but the overall trend since 2009 is downward. Washington West Superintendent Brigid Nease told the audience that the trend is not limited to this area. The state is losing 1,200 to 1,400 students annually.
Another resident asked what is included in the budget if the teachers’ contracts for next year still haven’t been finalized. Nease informed the resident that the budget is based on their knowledge of the current contracts and estimated raise in salaries and changes to benefits.
District restructuring was also mentioned; one resident asked, “Has there been any discussion about the small schools that we see and the closeness of all of them and thinking about restructuring? Has there been discussion about that? And if there has, are we going to postpone maintenance on those buildings so we can think about that restructuring and not spend money on maintenance on buildings that we might consolidate?”
Nease replied that it is much too early to give a reply to that question. She mentioned that the new board is still just getting to know each building and they are learning how to operate as a unified board.
Heidi Hill, a board member from Fayston, also told the audience that the articles of agreement do not allow for a school closing within the first four years of the merger and the buildings that they look after are assets to the school board so to neglect a building would be a mistake.
Many board members did acknowledge that they would have to have tough discussions about consolidation if enrollment continues to decline, but that work will come in the future.
“In light of declining enrollment should it continue, we respect the fact that our taxpayers expect to see efficiencies and hopefully in four years we’ll prove that we are aware of that,” said Rosemarie White of Warren.
One voter asked the board about Governor Scott’s proposal to level fund Vermont’s K-12 schools for one year. The board responded that it was simply too late when the governor made his proposal to really act on it. “I don’t think that was a very realistic time frame for any school board to really engage in that. I think that was his way of saying you need to look at this for next year,” said Jill Ellis, of Fayston.
BOARD MEMBERS RECEIVE RAISE
Before the meeting ended the board members received a raise from the voters, much to their surprise. “I don’t know whether it’s an order, it just seems like now is the time to make some kind of an adjustment. Nobody’s doing it to get rich, but at least it ought to cover their expenses,” one resident said of the board’s compensation.
The HUUSD Board had to set their own compensation at their organizational meeting on August 31 and it was decided that the members would receive $500 with an additional $200 for the chair and vice chair. Many of the board members at the organizational meeting expressed discomfort with setting the number themselves.
The new compensation was raised to $950 for the chair and vice chair and $750 for the remaining board members.
With the budget officially behind the board, they will continue their work on policy review and they will, hopefully, begin to negotiate contracts for teachers and support staff.