Taxes in Dresden school district towns of Norwich, Hanover vary in clarity

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-08-2023 6:25 AM

In meetings Wednesday, officials with the Hanover, Norwich and Dresden school districts considered cuts to budgets that will come up for approval by the districts’ boards in the next two weeks.

Those discussions revealed two communities facing very different financial circumstances.

Hanover will see an estimated tax rate increase of a little under 7% to pay for the town’s Bernice A. Ray Elementary School and its share of expenses at Richmond Middle School and Hanover High School. That’s roughly in line with the rate of inflation, and the increase is largely attributable to a decline in state revenue after a windfall in the current year. The Hanover and Dresden budget committees, which met Wednesday morning at Hanover High School, talked more about raising pay for substitute teachers and educational assistants than about budget cuts.

Norwich, on the other hand, is bracing for a potential tax rate increase of around 5.7%, but in a meeting of the Norwich School Board on Wednesday evening, officials struck a more pessimistic note.

“It’s still in flux, I guess is the big point to take away here, and it will probably go higher,” SAU 70 Business Administrator Jamie Teague told board members.

In an effort to reduce the tax impact, board members will consider cutting a handful of empty positions from the elementary budget, including a full-time special educator, a half-time French teacher and two special education assistants, that would reduce the budget by $190,612.

Even with the cuts, the proposed $7.2 million budget for Norwich’s Marion Cross School would be 9% higher than this year’s, and the district’s student count is projected to decline, which raises the per-pupil cost on which state education taxes are based. In addition, two numbers that affect a Vermont school district’s tax rate, the common level of appraisal, or CLA, and the yield, which is the per-pupil funding level set annually by the state Legislature, are changing in ways that aren’t favorable to Norwich.

The CLA is a measure of how close a town’s property assessments are to fair market value. The rapid increase in prices paid for Norwich real estate in the last year has brought the town’s CLA down to 74.48%, a drop of 10 percentage points from the current budget year. That means the assessed value of property on the town’s Grand List is at 74.48% of the fair market value, determined by an annual state study.

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A lower CLA causes a higher tax rate, to bring the lower assessed values in line with market value, and also requires the town to seek a townwide reappraisal. Towns all over Vermont are in the same situation as Norwich, Teague said, thanks to the frenzy of real estate purchases during the pandemic.

The yield, or base amount, is the amount of money that lawmakers plan to spend from the state Education Fund, typically presented to districts as a per-pupil figure. Norwich built its budget around a yield of $15,479 per pupil, but when the state sets that figure, toward the end of the legislative session, it likely will be lower, perhaps by quite a lot. The current year’s yield, for example, is $13,314 per pupil. The lower yield would raise the tax rate, not only in Norwich, but in any district that calculated its estimated tax rate around the higher yield.

“I don’t know what it’s going to be, either,” Norwich School Board member Neil Odell said, “but I can guarantee that it’s going to be lower than it is right now.”

While the Norwich district’s budget adds 1.75 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff, including a full-time teacher, much of the increase is driven by higher costs for wages ($163,000) and benefits ($156,000). Health insurance costs are projected to rise 12.73% across the Hanover and Norwich schools. Transportation costs also are higher, driven by higher fuel costs.

The Dresden Interstate School District, which oversees secondary education for Hanover and Norwich, will see a more modest budget increase of around 4.5%. And Norwich’s share of the cost will decline by 2.2%, based on the proportion of students each town sends to Richmond Middle School and Hanover High School.

In addition to the known increases, Norwich is still negotiating with its teachers and support staff. Members of both bargaining units are currently working without a contract, so any deal would include retroactive raises that would fall into the proposed budget for 2023-24.

“There’s so much uncertainty on here in the wrong direction,” Odell said. Concerns about higher taxes made him inclined to support the proposed budget cut of $190,000, he said.

If the board makes those cuts, member Lily Trajman said, she worries that “we’re never going to be able to find a way to put them back in if we need them.”

A version of that struggle is playing out across all four of the Hanover and Norwich schools. Among the best-funded public schools in the Twin States, they are currently unable to maintain all their programs because so many positions remain unfilled.

Hanover is applying $300,000 from the current year’s budget to next year’s, money that’s available because the district has 3.3 FTE instructional positions open (full-time math and reading/writing specialists and a kindergarten teacher and a part-time band teacher). In addition, 15.4 support positions, including 10.4 special education assistant positions, are unfilled. That’s half of the nearly 21 FTE special education assistants Hanover budgets for.

The open jobs have meant that staff who aren’t special education assistants are filling in as one-on-one aides and that special education teachers are filling in when the wider needs of the school take precedence, Rhett Darak, SAU 70’s director of student services, said at the budget committee meeting. The situation has left the school out of compliance with the individualized education plans, commonly called IEPs, of special education students, Darak said.

“Parents have been, I would say, extremely understanding,” he said, adding that he was grateful for that understanding. “We can’t create people” to staff the school, he said.

Superintendent Jay Badams said that when a student “becomes dysregulated, we’re still taking care of that student.”

“There’s this culture of ‘all hands on deck’ and doing things to get by,” Badams said. But “when people hustle to do these jobs, they’re not doing their (own) jobs.”

Hanover hopes to hire more aides by making a change to a contract term that allows new hires to be paid only as if they have five years of seniority, even if they’ve been working as an aide elsewhere for much longer. Making that change requires negotiating with the district’s support staff union.

In addition to allocating some money not spent on staffing this year, the Hanover budget committee put $281,000 from its closed sixth grade tuition fund toward reducing the tax impact.

Based on the budget committees’ actions, Hanover’s estimated tax rate would be $11.64 per $1,000 of assessed value. That’s 75 cents higher than the current year’s rate of $10.89. If the Norwich board elects the proposed cuts, the town’s Norwich’s estimated residential school tax rate of $1.99 per $100 of assessed value would be up by 3.8%. But as officials said, it’s likely to be higher; it’s just not clear by how much.

The Dresden meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Hanover High School library. The Hanover meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday in the music room at the Ray School.

The Norwich board delayed its meeting, pushing it off from Thursday until Jan. 17, when the board plans not only to adopt a budget but to hear estimates for septic system and playground improvements at Marion Cross School. It seems likely that the proposed improvements will require a special district meeting later this year.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

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