What’s at stake in the June 4 GM school budget vote?

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2024 Telegraph Publishing LLC

On Tuesday, June 4 – a little less than three weeks from now – residents of Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish and Chester will have the opportunity to vote on the Green Mountain School District budget for the third time in as many months. The budget funds Cavendish Town and Chester-Andover elementary schools and Green Mountain Union High.

GM board members hear from constituents at the April 30 special meeting. Image courtesy of Okemo Valley TV

During the three months since the budget failed at the Town Meeting Day vote, the district’s board cut $432,562 from the original $17.4 million spending plan. But from the first vote to the second, the number of voters dropped by more than half and the margin of defeat increased. Since then, the board has made further cuts, bringing that total to nearly $900,000 or just under 5 percent less than the original budget proposal.

The fiscal year for the school district begins on July 1. If the school district does not have a voter-approved budget by then, it will have to borrow money to run the three schools. It will be allowed to borrow up to 87 percent of what it is operating on in this year. That means getting the money from a lender and paying interest, which will add to the cost.

According to a formula put out by the state Agency of Education, a district that does not have a budget would get 75 percent of its “Base Education Rate,” which is currently $13,063 per weighted student. The Green Mountain District has 1,203.11 weighted students so that would equal $11.7 million and it would be authorized to borrow up to a little less than $2 million to get to 87 percent of the FY24 budget.

While it borrows for operating expenses, the district will be obliged by state statute to continue putting budgets before the voters until one passes. The current budget is $15.8 million and 87 percent of that is $13.7 million or a reduction of more than $2 million from the current 2023-24 budget, which ends June 30.

But the State of Vermont will not stop taxing district property owners because the school has not passed a budget.

According to Craig Bolio, Commissioner  of the state Department of Taxes, the state will calculate an “interim homestead education tax” that will be the “base rate” of $1 divided by the Common Level of Appraisal for each town in the district. For example, the interim education tax for Andover would be $1 divided by the Andover CLA of .7011 equaling  $1.43 per $100 of assessed value. For more on the CLA’s effect on each town’s tax rate see below. Once a district budget is passed, the tax department has 30 days to recalculate the tax and revise the tax bills upward.

Millington: School budget has small impact on tax rate

 Incoming TRSU Superintendent Layne Millington says it is important for taxpayers to understand how the state's education funding system works.

Incoming TRSU Superintendent Layne Millington says it is important for taxpayers to understand how the state’s education funding system works.

With the new school year, Layne Millington will be taking over as superintendent of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union.

If there is no budget, he will be working through the problem with the 11-member school district board, which has representatives from each town.

The Telegraph sought an interview about the situation. Instead, Millington emailed a lengthy statement in which he wrote that it is “important for the community to understand in general terms how education funding works in Vermont as even massive cuts in a local district will only have a small impact on people’s overall taxes.  The system is designed to equalize taxes by having all taxpayers across the state pay for the cost of all districts…”

Millington noted that because increases and decreases are spread across taxpayers throughout the state, “…the proposed staff cuts and delayed facilities maintenance some in the community are asking for will have a dramatic negative impact on the quality of services the district is able to provide to students for what is likely a very small savings to the local taxpayer.”

It’s clear that cutting $2 million from this year’s budget (without even taking into account the contractual increases in teacher and administrative salaries and health care) will not just involve trimming here and there. At the board’s April 30 budget meeting, the elimination list included athletics, co-curriculars, transportation and several other items but totaled up to less than $600,000. From there Millington and the board will have to look at tough choices including letting employees go and offering less to students across the board.

“The community needs to decide if the potential dissatisfaction and aggravation they will experience due to reduced services is worth a small decrease in taxes,” wrote Millington, pointing to the state’s education funding system as the “real problem” and suggested that people need to address this by talking with their legislators.

An indicator of the differences between the impact of the proposed budget in the four towns that make up the district is the Common Level of Appraisal or CLA. Each town has its own CLA, which compares the market value of property to the value assessed by the town. The idea is to have a level playing field for all the towns in the state. But there’s a problem in that property values have been rising rapidly since the Covid pandemic but there are not enough appraisal firms to handle reappraisals that would put things back into balance.

Compare the CLA of Andover with that of Baltimore. Andover was last appraised in 2018 while Baltimore was last appraised in 2023. So the Andover CLA is further out of whack than Baltimore’s. When each town’s CLA is used in calculating that town’s estimated education property tax rate, Andover’s is higher ($1.78/$100 of assessed value) than Baltimore’s ($1.28/$100.) Cavendish and Chester fall between those two with Cavendish’s last reappraisal in 2019 and Chester’s in 2020.

But as school officials have pointed out repeatedly, the schools have no control over the CLA, and its the CLA that determines the final tax rate in each town.

One other factor in some residents’ decisions to vote ‘no’ is the messaging that comes from state government. Gov. Phil Scott has repeatedly said, “Vermonters simply cannot afford a historic, double-digit property tax increase, and I won’t accept one.

But, calculating the percentage of increase based on the proposed budget, Andover would see a 7.78 percent increase while Cavendish and Chester’s estimated increase would be 5.6 percent and 4.73 percent respectively. Baltimore – with its up-to-date CLA would see a decrease in its tax rate of 21.82 percent. Those aren’t small increases, but they are not the double digit bumps that are often stated.

The board’s next regular meeting will be at 6 p.m. on Thursday May 16 at the Green Mountain High School, 716 Route 103 south in Chester and via Zoom. To join the meeting go to: https://trsu.zoom.us/j/88449272142 .Part of the evening’s discussion will be on how to get the word out regarding the budget vote.

There will also be an informational meeting at 6 p.m. on Thursday May 30 also at the Green Mountain and via Zoom. There was discussion at the April 30 meeting of holding a satellite meeting via Zoom at Cavendish Elementary. Check back with The Telegraph for more details closer to the date.

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  1. RAYMOND MAKUL says:

    After reading that article, I am glad that there is not a quiz.