Hartford School Board looks to keep budget, taxes from double-digit percentage hike


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-27-2023 4:14 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — The School Board — facing a projected budget increase of $4 million for next academic year — will consider recommendations to reduce the tax impact on voters but aims to resist cuts that could adversely affect students.

The Hartford School District is currently proposing a $47.6 million operating budget for the 2023-24 school year. Over half of the $4 million rise from the current school year is attributable to increases in salaries and benefits for teachers, staff and administrators.

The proposal would result in a 10.5% hike in the property tax rate, or the equivalent of an additional $518 on a $300,000 home.

The School Board asked Superintendent Tom DeBalsi on Wednesday to create a pair of alternative budget “scenarios” — one that caps the tax rate increase at 7.9% and one that caps the tax rate at 8.5%, which reflects the nationwide rise in consumer prices due to inflation.

Board members said they primarily want to see what types of cuts these lower targets would require and how they might impact the school district.

“Even if it is only to the rate of inflation, reducing (the budget) even more doesn’t feel good to me,” said board member Peter Merrill, who suggested the 8.5% target. “But at the same time, let’s look at it and see what it actually means.”

Board members said they are adamant about protecting a number of new or recently added positions created to provide additional support to students with higher learning needs.

These positions, totaling approximately $580,000, include a high school mental health clinician, pre-kindergarten teachers, an English Language Learner specialist and a high school Student Assistance Program coordinator, who assists in identifying students with mental health or substance use issues and provides support for their educational success.

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Many of these positions were created during the past two years using funding 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. As the district’s ESSER funding dwindles, these positions must either be funded through the general operating budget or be cut.

School Board Clerk Russell North cautioned against cutting the ESSER-funded positions, saying the services they provide are still needed by many Hartford students.

“There is still a real mental health problem in our school system that has to be addressed,” North said. “So I would be very hesitant to approve any budget that would take away what we have done in those areas.”

Board member Nancy Russell echoed North’s concerns by saying that hypothetically she would rather defer needed building repairs another year before cutting supports for students with higher needs.

“I don’t think we can feasibly give our kids the education that we are responsible to give them as a school board if we can’t help get them through some of these mental health issues,” Russell said.

Hartford, which has received $2.3 million in total ESSER funds since 2021, has spent $1.6 million to date on a range of educational and mental health supports and resources for students, many of whom were adversely impacted by the shift to remote learning during the pandemic.

Hartford currently has about $730,000 remaining in ESSER money, though $388,000 of that may be used only for summer-learning programs. School districts also were required under federal law to allocate 20% of their ESSER funding toward extended school year programs.

Merrill, though not necessarily averse to prioritizing student support services over building maintenance funds, said the board would need a plan to specify when deferred repairs would be addressed.

“I do not want to return to the bad old days where cans are kicked down the road until the cans turn into a pile of rust,” Merrill said. “We need to identify what specifically we are delaying and make explicit commitments to when we will address those issues.”

Because the deadline is fast approaching to finalize articles on the school warrant, the School Board may need to schedule a special meeting to approve a final budget proposal, Chairman Kevin “Coach” Christie said. This would be in addition to the board’s next scheduled meeting on Jan. 25, which is its last meeting before its public budget presentation on Feb. 8.

School Boardfills vacant seat

Douglas H. Heavisides will become the newest member of the Hartford School Board, which unanimously selected him to fill the vacant board seat previously held by Havah Armstrong Walther.

Heavisides’s son, Douglas J. Heavisides has been an educator in the Hartford School District, for 29 years and is currently principal of The Wilder School.

Heavisides was the only applicant for the vacant board seat. Board members said they were “overjoyed” at the prospect of working with him.

“Having worked with Doug on the Buildings and Facilities Committee, I think he will be a fine addition to the board,” North said. “If this was going to be the only application, it’s a good one.”

Walther resigned from the board in November due to scheduling conflicts.

The term of the seat is set to expire in March.

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

CORRECTIONS: Douglas H. Heavisides, the newly appointed Hartford  School Board member, is the father of Douglas J. Heavisides , the former director of the Hartford Career and Technical Center and current principal of The Wilder School. Douglas H. Heavisides was misidentified in a previous version of this story. The Hartford School Board was considering a proposed operating budget totaling $47.6 million – an increase of $4 million – for the 2023-24 school year at its meeting on Jan. 11. A previous version of this story included incorrect numbers for the budget proposal.