Amid statewide education funding uncertainty, Mount Ascutney School District postpones budget vote

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-13-2024 8:15 PM

WINDSOR — The Mount Ascutney School District board voted unanimously Monday night to rescind the $15.5 million budget members had approved in January and bring a revised version to voters at a later date.

Board members made the decision in response to uncertainty about educational taxes as state legislators scramble to make adjustments to Act 127, a 2022 law that will have a significant impact on school funding in Vermont.

The School Board’s decision anticipates the passage of H.850, legislation introduced just last Friday by the House Ways and Means Committee that would allow school boards to delay voting on their budgets and compensate them for the costs of the additional elections.

The board, which oversees schools in West Windsor and Windsor, felt that voting to rescind the budget was “the right thing to do for our taxpayers and our education system,” said state Rep. Elizabeth Burrows, who represents West Windsor on the Mount Ascutney school board.

The board expects to make changes in response to whatever education funding policy lawmakers adopt.

“We can’t present to voters something that we approved under completely different rules,” School Board Chairman Davis McGraw said.

While adding spending for a roof repair to the Windsor High School auditorium, the board has “kept the budget responsible,” Windsor Southeast Superintendent Christine Bourne said on Tuesday. But if budgets need to be trimmed statewide, “we should also do our part,” she said.

The board does not have a specific spending reduction target just yet because any impacts would still be a “moving target” at this point, McGraw said.

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But the board’s priority is to keep student services in place wherever possible.

“Schools are really just emerging from COVID,” McGraw said. While it’s never ideal to cut student services, this would be an “exceptionally bad time to disrupt mental health supports,” he said.

Act 127 was enacted to increase equity in the funding of public schools by updating the “pupil weighting” formula that determines how much it costs to educate different types of students. Rural districts, as well as those with high rates of poverty and English-language learners, would “gain” pupils and receive more state funding.

Those towns whose pupil weights did not increase under the Act 127 formula would need to pay more in taxes in order to fund their schools. To mitigate steep property tax increases, Act 127 provided for a 5% tax increase cap for the first few years of its implementation to allow towns time to adjust their budgeting to the new formula.

However, many school districts seized on the 5% tax increase cap as a way to increase their spending to fund much-needed construction and repairs without driving up tax rates.

These budget additions placed a strain on the state education fund such that funding all of the state’s school budgets became untenable.

As introduced, the purpose of H.850 is to “help school districts adapt to the new system of pupil weighting.” It will give districts time to make spending cuts based on the removal of the 5% tax-increase cap that was originally part of Act 127.

Although H.850 is still making its way through the legislative process and will likely be amended, Mount Ascutney’s school board is acting on the assumption that its passage is a certainty.

“There is no chance that this is not going to pass,” Burrows said.

The board was able to act early in moving its meeting under provisions of Act 1, a 2023 law that temporarily allows municipal boards to change the dates of their annual meetings.

McGraw described the situation facing the board as a “Gordian knot of numbers and context.” The board’s dual goals of providing adequate educational services while being fiscally responsible “have not been as strongly in tension as they are this year,” he said Monday.

At an upcoming meeting, the board will take another look at its 2024-25 budget and “see what we can do without,” said board member Bill Yates, of West Windsor.

The budget as originally approved was a 13% increase from the budget voters approved last year.

In addition to removing the operating budget from the annual school meeting warning, the board canceled its informational meeting night, which was scheduled for Feb. 29.

“We’re not choosing the path of least resistance here. It’s going to be a lot of work,” said McGraw.

He and other board members acknowledged the strain that moving the budget vote will place on the district’s business office and clerks.

The Mount Ascutney School Board will hold its next meeting on Feb. 27 at 6:30 p.m. in the Albert Bridge School library in West Windsor. At this meeting, members will revisit the budget and set new dates for both the information meeting and the budget vote, which will take place in late March or early April.

School Board elections will not be affected by the budget changes.

In the lone contested race, Megan Reed and David Taft are vying for the remaining two years on a seat representing Windsor on the two-town board.

Burrows is unopposed for a three-year West Windsor seat.

No one filed for a three-year seat representing Windsor.

Australian ballot voting will take place on Tuesday, March 5 from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Voting for Windsor residents will take place at the Windsor Municipal Building, 29 Union St., and voting for West Windsor residents will take place at Story Memorial Hall, 22 Brownsville-Hartland Road.

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan@vnews.com or 603-727-3208.