Committee supports BUHS budget plan, worries about future

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BRATTLEBORO — A committee specializing in financial matters gives the proposed high school budget a passing grade, calling it "sound" and "worthy of approval by the voters."

"The implications for future years, however, are sobering, as large contributions from [reserve] fund balance cannot be repeatedly used to make up for a shortfall in state aid," says a report prepared this month by the Brattleboro Representative Town Meeting Finance Committee. "Without the use of fund balance this year, either services would have been cut far more significantly or the local property tax increase for the schools as whole [Brattleboro Union High School and the Brattleboro Town School District] would have been higher."

Voters will decide whether to support the budget at the annual high school meeting in the school's gym on Tuesday at 7 p.m. The regional high school district includes Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney.

The proposed fiscal year 2019 budget for the high school features a 3 percent or $768,197 decrease in spending, going from $25,359,197 to $24,591,000. Due to potential funding penalties, the BUHS board made some budget cuts and used more of the fund balance than originally anticipated.

Each member town's school tax rate will look differently as the rates are combined with those from the elementary school districts. An increase of 2.7 percent is anticipated in Brattleboro, according to Windham Southeast Supervisory Union documents.

Services to the students will "for the most part" be maintained, the finance committee's report says. But use of an accumulated fund balance will go up quite a bit over last year.

The FY18 budget called for taking $53,000 from the fund balance while the FY19 budget proposes $1,285,000.

"An important cause of these results was a large, sudden drop in the number of equalized students tabulated by the Vermont Agency of Education, which in turn was caused by the removal of a hold-harmless provision from the education funding formula by the Vermont legislature last year," the report says, referring to how students are weighted differently according to factors such as age, ability to speak the English language and poverty. "The hold-harmless provision had protected schools against a sudden drop in their number of equalized pupils, which is a key factor in setting the local property tax rate."

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The provision would have remained in effect if districts within the WSESU had merged when a proposal was on the table, the report notes. In November, the Act 46 plan was rejected in the four towns that make up the union. The state will now decide how a merger will look to satisfy the law's goals around student equity and increasing efficiencies.

The high school went from having 1,156.51 to 960.27 equalized pupils, losing 76 in December. That "immediately created big problems for the district," the finance committee says. The school board had to come up with a plan that kept financing below the state's "excessive spending threshold" or else taxpayers would be taxed an additional dollar for every one above the threshold.

Vernon's leaving the union during Act 46 talks in order to maintain school choice was cited as a smaller reason behind the drop in equalized pupils.

"As a result, its students and its tax payments are no longer inherently included in the BUHS district," the report says. "In order to continue sending students to BUHS, Vernon will now make tuition payments to the district. In theory, this should have little effect on the budget as long as the new tuition payments and the former tax payments are close to the same, which is likely to be true but is not guaranteed."

After community members largely opposed eliminating a line item for the diversity coordinator, the position was kept in the budget. In response, hours for a medical teaching position at the Windham Regional Career Center were cut from full to part time, a contract for circus-arts programming was renegotiated and funding for proposed capital expenses was changed. Other cuts included Latin instruction at the high school and a part-time math position at the middle school.

New to the budget will be two paraprofessionals at the middle school "to help with behavioral issues" and a daytime supervisor for maintenance work throughout the supervisory union, according to the report. And in keeping with negotiated contracts, BUHS budgets feature 2.5 percent increases for staff salaries and benefits.

"The quality of education at BUHS has been and will remain high based on the proposed budget," the finance committee concludes its report. "Additional challenges remain ahead as student numbers are expected to remain relatively stable or decline. Specifically, the use of fund balance cannot provide ongoing support to the programs as it does for the proposed FY19 budget. Other means of balancing future budgets will have to be found."     

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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