12/23/2009

By Lisa Loomis

While local select boards are beginning the budgeting work in preparation for March Town Meeting, local school boards and administrators have had their heads bent over the task for several weeks already.

This week, The Valley Reporter takes a look at area schools and how the budgeting process is working out for the four elementary schools and Harwood Union. Budgeting is made more difficult for local boards because of the state's current economic climate, the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) and how lowered housing values have affected the statewide educational property tax.

LEVEL FUND

Schools can level fund and still see an increase in education taxes because a town's state educational property tax rate is based on the number of equalized pupils, the town's per pupil equalized spending, and the town's CLA. The actual impact of each proposed school budget will become known sometime in February after proposed budgets have been approved by school boards and select boards and sent to the state.

What follows is information about Harwood Union's budgeting process and inside this issue are summaries of the budgeting process for the Warren, Waitsfield, Fayston and Moretown Elementary Schools.

HARWOOD UNION

Harwood's proposed budget for next year is .03 percent less than this year. Draft 4 of the budget, which the school board's finance committee proposed on December 16, comes in at $12,238,845 compared to last year's budget of $12,276,171.

The finance committee will meet once more on this budget on January 6 in the school library at 4:30 p.m. before presenting the budget to the full board for discussion. The board will vote to adopt the budget on January 20.

School Principal Duane Pierson said that creating a budget this tight was difficult and made more so by the fact that Vermont's education funding formula means that reduced or level funded budgets can still result in tax increases.

PROGRAMMING REDUCTIONS

Pierson said that he and the budget committee had worked hard on staff and programming reductions using enrollment numbers.

"It's not easy to reduce staff. I'd like to not have to any reductions, but given the times and the economic climate, this is what we've had to do. We've been trying to look at enrollment numbers rather than programs," he said.

The school is reducing one full-time English teaching position, reassigning a business computer science position to a math position, and reducing a family/consumer science position by .5. Additionally, all supplies have been level funded, or reduced, Pierson said.

SPECIFIC ATHLETIC CUTS

Cuts in athletic programs are also being proposed. Pierson said that transportation for scrimmages has been eliminated as well as transportation for other events. Reductions in coaching are proposed along with specific cuts in athletic programs.

Those athletic programs include JV B soccer along with JV B basketball. Those cuts include transportation and coaching for those two sports that total $14,000 in savings.

"We also have a program in Waterbury, the Harwood Community Learning Center, which we're proposing to move to the Highlands building across from Harwood Union. We expect that so save $24,000.

At their December 16 meeting, members of the Harwood School Board voted to move forward with a bond not to exceed $199,000 to repair the school's roof and water main.

School board member Mary Gow said, "The board had an extensive discussion about how to proceed, recognizing the current economic circumstances and facing a really tough budget year. Considering that Waterbury-Duxbury will have other bond items on their Town Meeting agenda, and knowing that the work still needs to be done, we needed to figure out a way to move forward and still be responsible with the taxpayers' property at Harwood and to keep it maintained."
At their next meeting, scheduled for January 6, the board will draft the specific bond language to be warned 30 days prior to the vote.



NEW BOND PROPOSED

"We're increasing our maintenance reserve fund from $75,000 to $125,000 to take care of some of the items that would have been covered by the bond," he continued.

 (See box, below, about new proposal to bring back a smaller bond for HU maintenance. A $1.1 million bond failed in November.)

"We're budgeting a little bit more for professional development and for substitutes, to more accurately reflect what happens during the year," Pierson explained.

He said that he had been anticipating a 7 percent increase in health care costs for staff, but that increase came in at 3.5 percent, which helped with the budget bottom line.

"It's been a tough challenge this year and I think it's going to get more challenging. The economic future, in terms of school budget, from what I've been told, is discouraging. Our equalized pupil count is down, at 823, and that means with a zero budget, taxes will still go up. It's unbelievably frustrating," he concluded.

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