Hartford School Board trims budget and taps reserves, but projected tax increase still significant


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-30-2023 6:35 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — The Hartford School Board is proposing an operating budget of $47.6 million for the 2023-24 school year, after approving a flurry of spending trims and appropriations last week to reduce the proposal’s tax impact. 

The budget proposal increases total spending next year by $3.9 million, which would result in an estimated 7.5% increase in the school portion of the property tax rate. That’s equivalent to an additional $372 annually on a $300,000 property. 

A previous draft of the budget was projected to raise the tax rate by over 10%. 

At a meeting last week, the School Board cut $330,000 in spending from the final proposal. The reductions, presented to the board by Superintendent Tom DeBalsi, include $100,000 in building repairs, the zeroing out of two reserve accounts for fuel and building maintenance totaling $70,000, and $160,000 in cuts from individual schools and the athletic department. 

DeBalsi said he plans to work with each school principal to find cuts that will not adversely impact educational services and programming. 

“We have spent the last eight years — 12 actually — building our programs, improving our district’s attractiveness and trying to increase our functioning,” DeBalsi said. “We want to make (these cuts) so that there will be as little impact as possible and so we don’t affect that forward momentum. And I’m confident that we will be able to do that.” 

The School Board will also use $550,000 from the district’s $2.8 million reserve fund to offset the tax impact.

Board members expressed caution about drawing too heavily from the reserve, as the money used will only provide a temporary relief to residents. 

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“By giving the taxpayers a break this year, what happens next year when (the budget) goes up another three percent?” asked board member Nancy Russell. 

Board members, to justify tapping the district’s reserve, noted this was a particularly challenging budgetary cycle for the school district. 

The $3.9 million hike in expenditures is largely attributable to staffing cost increases, including a $1.9 million increase in district salaries and a $590,000 increase in health and retirement benefits. 

Hartford also has three positions, totaling approximately $580,000, that were created using funds from ESSER, or Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, a federal program that provided aid to schools nationwide to assist their post-pandemic transition back to fully in-person learning. The School Board supports retaining these positions, which have provided additional support to students with higher learning needs, particularly due to impacts of the pandemic and the loss of in-person instructional time. But as the district’s ESSER funding runs out, the district will need to begin funding these positions through the general operating budget. 

“We are not adding anything (to this budget),” noted Board Clerk Russell North. “We are maintaining it. And even at that we are struggling to maintain.”

Hartford’s school tax rate is also being affected by a drop in the town’s common level of appraisal, or CLA, which is part of a formula used to ensure that each Vermont town is paying its fair share to the state’s education fund. 

Surging property values over the past two years has led to a significant drop in Hartford’s CLA, which now stands at 77%. That Hartford’s grand list — the total assessed value of all parcels — reflects only 77% of the actual market value of those properties. 

To correct this disparity, a drop in the CLA typically results in an increase in a town’s tax rate. 

The Hartford School District also saw a dip in its equalized pupil rate, a formula that uses student enrollment data to determine how much a district receives in state funding. 

“This is like a perfect storm hitting us all in one year,” North said. “And unfortunately the taxpayers are the ones who are going to feel the pain.” 

The School Board will present the budget to voters for a public discussion on Monday, Feb. 27 at the Hartford High School auditorium. 

Voting on the budget will be conducted by Australian ballot on Tuesday, March 7 in the Hartford High School gymnasium. Polls will open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or at 603-727-3216.