Windham Southeast budget gets passing grade

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BRATTLEBORO — The Windham Southeast School District's first budget is backed by the Brattleboro Representative Town Meeting Finance Committee "despite the valid questions that can be raised about the Act 46 merger, the structure of the WSESD board, the tax rates, and the budget itself," according to a report approved Friday.

"What has not changed this year is that the school boards did their job in planning for the education of the students in their towns and schools," the committee wrote. "What we have are the best proposals they could provide, combined in a somewhat haphazard process, and the students are depending on us to move through the process in an orderly and responsible fashion."

The committee said the fiscal year 2020 budget is "simply the separate budgets of the five merged school districts" combined for a total of $50,172,299. Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney residents are invited to the June 25 vote at 7 p.m. in the Brattleboro Union High School gym. Informational meetings are being held by the board Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Dummerston Elementary School and June 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the Windham Regional Career Center.

Tax rates per $100 of assessed property value are anticipated to be about $1.642 for Brattleboro, $1.643 for Dummerston, $1.689 for Guilford and $1.709 for Putney.

"Differences are due to differences in property value assessment levels (the Common Level of Appraisal) among the towns," the committee said. "The tax rate for Brattleboro is higher in the merged district than it would have been without the merger. The Finance Committee does not fully understand the cause of this difference and will look into it further ... The reasons, lying buried in the calculations, are somewhat opaque, but the Finance Committee will try to have an answer by the time of the vote on June 25, or sooner if possible."

The committee typically weighs in on school budgets affecting tax rates in town. The report admittedly includes "a less detailed review" of the Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney school budgets.

DISTRICT BUDGETS

The BUHS and Brattleboro Town School District budgets make up 80 percent of the new district's proposed budget, according to the report.

The goal of the $25,211,000 BUHS budget was to "maintain level services and as close to level funding as possible," the committee said. The spending plan includes the high school, Brattleboro Area Middle School and Windham Regional Career Center.

"Capital spending totals $350,000 and includes needed upgrades to flooring, roofing, and hot water supply, and an initial payment on resurfacing Natowich field for football and other sports," the committee wrote.

The $15,368,219 budget for the Brattleboro Town School District, made up of the three elementary schools and Early Education Services, features a 4.8 percent bump over last year.

"About 60 percent of the increases is attributable to salaries and benefits," the committee said. "There also are increases in the [Windham Southeast Supervisory Union] assessment, operations and maintenance, and foreign language instruction. Capital spending for FY20 totals $395,450 and includes an initial payment on new construction at Academy School, and upgrades and repairs to roofing, ceilings, floorings, windows, and playgrounds."

The $3,067,500 budget for the Dummerston Town School District is up by 4.1 percent from last year, "despite the intention to provide an unchanged service level," according to the report. "The increased expenditures are related to salary and benefits (health insurance showed a projected 11 percent increase, similar to the rest of the WSESU), and also the addition of a preschool teacher at a cost of about $100,000, half which is offset by a decrease in paraprofessional staff. The initial budget draft would have resulted in expenditures high enough to trigger a tax penalty from the state, but a last minute small-schools grant avoided that outcome."

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The $2,922,000 budget for the Guilford Town School District includes a 6.5 percent increase.

"Contributing factors shown in the published budget figures include salaries and benefits, contracted preschool services ($40,000), teacher leadership and program improvement ($10,000), special education ($14,000), and food services ($7,000)," the committee said, noting that the figures are approximate. "There is a $30,000 increase in fund balance [or reserve] in the capital fund, but a $75,000 decrease in fund balance in the general fund, to offset increased spending and the resulting tax rate."

The Putney Town School District's $3,403,070 spending plan is up by 4.4 percent over last year. The committee said increases had to do with salaries and benefits, the supervisory union assessment and special education.

The committee anticipates there could be another meeting of the district voters at some point to see about changing up the structure on the new board. Despite Brattleboro having a much larger population, each community currently has two board members representing them.

The committee also wonders if a finance committee might form to aid the new district. One had been established to help the BUHS board.

WHAT ABOUT VERNON?

Then there's the question of Vernon and what will happen to the supervisory union.

"It's a complicated discussion, but when Vernon left the BUHS district and the yet-to-be-formed WSESD, it had the largely unanticipated consequence that the WSESU would have to continue to exist, with Vernon and the WSESD as its two member districts," the committee said. "This would seem to create inefficiencies within the administration of the school districts, as the SU is required to perform certain functions that could otherwise be performed by the merged district. The budgetary impact of this question is unknown at present. Any action to address Vernon's status would have to be taken by the Vermont Board of Education and is highly speculative."

But "perhaps most fundamental is the question of how much interest the voters will take in the functioning of the WSESD board and the budget it creates," the committee said. "The recent WSEDSD board elections had a voter turnout of less than 4 percent."

A lack of participation, the committee said, allows "decisions to be made by a small group of people with a specific agenda."

"Attendance at BUHS annual meetings was notoriously poor," the committee wrote. "Will this pattern continue for the WSESD?"

The committee commended school board members and administrators for "the long hours, hard work, and difficult discussions they have been through for the past three years."

"The merger process has been far from easy, and will still require the good will and determined efforts of many people in order to address the challenges and opportunities faced by our public schools, their students, and our communities as a whole," the committee concluded.

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


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