Delayed votes on reduced Vermont school budgets set for April

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-29-2024 6:00 PM

Seven Upper Valley school districts will hold budget votes between now and April 15 in an extended budget season plagued by soaring education costs and uncertainty about the tax impacts of school spending.

Since rescinding their previously approved budgets in February, school boards and administrators have cut teachers, coaches and playground improvements in an effort to mitigate tax burdens and make their proposals more palatable to voters.

“It’s been a tough, tough budget season,” Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Christine Bourne said by phone on Wednesday.

“I’m really proud of all of our communities,” she said of her supervisory union, which includes the districts of Mount Ascutney, Hartland and Weathersfield. “We listened to the Legislature and honored their request, and I feel good about that. But it does have an impact.”

As rising school spending threatened to overwhelm the Vermont education fund, the Legislature moved quickly to repeal a temporary tax cap that was attached to Act 127, a new law that changes the formula by which schools receive funding. The tax cap was widely seen as the culprit behind the spending spike.

Less than two weeks before Town Meeting Day, Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, signed into law a bill, H.850, which allowed districts to rescind and revisit their warned budgets. The intent was to give school boards extra time to sharpen their pencils and make some spending cuts.

They had to do so in the context of other budgetary pressures. The need for behavioral interventions and mental health supports for students continues, COVID-19 related federal school funding has ended. A sharp uptick in employee health care costs arrived as districts struggle to manage the urgent and costly needs of aging buildings. Against a backdrop of inflationary pressures and alarming tax rate predictions, school boards faced an extraordinary convergence of challenges this year.

“We have never seen anything like this,” Hartford School Board Chairman Kevin Christie said in February. It’s been a “perfect economic storm.”

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On Feb. 12, the Mount Ascutney School Board anticipated the passage of H.850 and became the first district in the Upper Valley to formally remove a budget from an approved Town Meeting warning.

Strafford school officials followed three days later; then Hartford, Weathersfield, Hartland and First Branch Unified also decided to rescind their budgets and look for ways to trim costs. Rivendell also has taken advantage of the extended deadline.

In the Mount Ascutney School District, that impact will be felt in the loss of two elementary school teachers, a reduced facilities budget, the removal of a theater equipment purchase and the tabling of much-needed roof repairs. The cuts removed more than a half million dollars from the budget.

A Spanish teacher and a curriculum coach were cut from Hartland’s original budget, and plans to renovate aging, and in some places dangerous, playground equipment were scaled back to include only those repairs needed for safety.

The Hartford School Board instructed its superintendent to remove $2.1 million from its budget, which administrators accomplished by cutting four sports programs, eight coaches, and 22 teacher and staff positions, 18 of which were vacant due to a lack of qualified applicants.

One question continues to loom over board meetings: What if a budget fails in April? On Town Meeting Day, Vermont voters rejected 29 of 95 budgets.

“We’re thinking about it, but we’re hoping we don’t have to go there,” Bourne said.

In Hartford, a failed budget would mean more staff and teacher layoffs. Approximately 75% of the district’s expenses are employee salaries and benefits, Hartford Superintendent Tom DeBalsi said at Wednesday’s board meeting.

“After this budget proposal, all of the cuts would be people,” he said.

District leaders in Hartford and Windsor say they will keep putting budgets before voters until July 1. At that point, Bourne said that schools without an approved budget would be eligible to receive roughly 87% of the current year’s spending totals from the state, which would be “devastating,” she said.

“We’re hoping that our communities understand what’s going on and, and will be supportive,” Bourne said.

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