West River in-person classes delayed to ensure air quality

Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School.

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TOWNSHEND — Minimizing the impact on tax bills by cutting back on administrative costs and applying reserve funds, the West River Education District unanimously approved a $12,115,000 budget for fiscal year 2022.

The budget, which will be decided by voters via ballot March 24, represents a 0.66 percent or $80,000 increase over the prior fiscal year.

At a school board meeting held remotely Tuesday, Board Vice Chairman Joe Winrich said the budget committee discussed how to cut $500,000 from the budget to avoid tax rate increases, but felt uncomfortable proposing a reduction of workforce without discussing it with the board. The committee recommended using $300,000 from fund balance or reserves and committed to discussing how schools might be restructured to make them more affordable.

Corrective action is needed, Board Chairman Al Claussen said, describing it as something he felt the board was on the path toward achieving until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“We need to start to look to the future very soon, as soon as we get this passed,” he said.

To avoid being financially penalized by the state for exceeding a spending threshold, Claussen said the district would need to find about $1 million in revenue or savings.

Laurie Garland, director of finance at Windham Central Supervisory Union, said the reserve fund currently holds about $572,000 so money would still be left over after budgeting $300,000 to add to revenue for FY22. The budget proposes no major programmatic changes nor any deferred maintenance items.

The spending plan includes $128,000 to create an in-house Vermont Adult Learning position at Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School to retain students. The idea is to use grant money to help fund the position.

Having more students will help to reduce tax rates, Garland said. Claussen later spoke about wanting to work with towns in the West River Valley to attract more families and businesses to the area to build the tax base.

The board opted against increasing academic support in Townshend Elementary. Principal Craig Roach previously requested an additional $40,000 for that purpose.

Tax rate projections change on a daily basis, Garland said. She called education taxes “very individualized” as the state’s income sensitivity program provides property owners with tax credits depending on their income and house values.

Tax rates are currently anticipated to rise by 10.64 percent in Brookline, 7 percent in Jamaica, 5.48 percent in Newfane and 4.63 percent in Townshend.

Brookline and Jamaica are more affected due to changes with their common level of appraisal, a state formula that makes adjustments to rates based on recent house sales with an eye toward ensuring Vermonters pay a comparable amount of education taxes on properties of equal value. Jamaica also is losing what is known as the “hold harmless” protection, which helped districts experiencing steep increases associated with declining enrollment and is being phased out as part of the 2015 Act 46 legislation that encouraged the creation of merged districts like WRED.

“Jamaica residents are going to have a hard time swallowing this pill,” board member Dana West said. “I know we’re supposed to be all together but it’s going to tear us apart a little bit.”

Before the budget was approved, board members and community members discussed ways to reduce costs. Ultimately, Superintendent Bill Anton’s recommendation to cut back on administrative expenses was deemed favorable.

Administrative positions in the district are proposed to drop from 5 full-time equivalent to 4 FTE by going from 2.6 full-time equivalent to 2 FTE at L&G, which has 290 students. NewBrook Elementary, which has 1 FTE and 90 students, and Jamaica Village School, which has 0.4 FTE and 22 students, will share 1 FTE. Townshend Elementary, which has 100 students, will maintain its 1 FTE.

With children out of the schools for long stretches of time due to the pandemic, former board member Drew Hazelton of Jamaica said, “We might have missed an opportunity to look at our system, to redesign it to a more cost effective model.” He also raised concerns about people not being able to afford their bills.

With challenges brought about by the pandemic, Claussen said the board avoided making long term decisions. Garland said programming is proposed to stay at pre-pandemic levels.

Paul Fraser, who serves on the Select Board in Jamaica, questioned why the board had not looked at cutting “sacrosanct programs” such as the Chinese language program and the Sino-American cultural exchange program Journey East. He also suggested the potential for fundraising for Journey East rather than including it in the budget.

The board balances what is best for students and taxpayers, Claussen said, adding that removing programs can make the district less attractive. Anton then recommended a reduction in administrative positions, which decreased Jamaica’s estimated tax rate increase from 10.8 percent to 7 percent but did not change rates for the other communities.

Claussen called the conversation “a prelude to many discussions in spring and throughout the rest of the year.”

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