Strafford, Chelsea, Tunbridge and Sharon mull school budget cuts

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-29-2024 4:07 PM

Two White River Valley school districts that canceled their annual budget votes will resume discussions at school board meetings in the coming days.

Both the Strafford and First Branch Unified school districts opted to call off their planned budget votes after the state Legislature suspended part of a school funding law that lawmakers said was enabling big increases in education spending.

First Branch, which comprises grades pre-K to eight in Chelsea and Tunbridge, will take up a proposal Tuesday evening that would leave the district with a flat equalized tax rate that would be adjusted by the two towns’ common levels of appraisal, Jamie Kinnarney, superintendent of White River Valley Supervisory Union, said in a phone interview.

The budget reductions include cutting a building fund transfer and a one-time purchase of instructional materials that will be paid for with grant funding instead.

The First Branch School Board’s meeting packet says the district could set an annual meeting date for the week of March 18 to consider the revised budget.

While the budget changes would moderate school property taxes, both Chelsea and Tunbridge would see their tax rates go up thanks to a rapid rise in property values that has driven down the common level of appraisal in both towns. Chelsea’s CLA is projected to decline from 78% to 70%, and Tunbridge’s would decline from 91% to 79.5%.

Under Vermont’s education finance system, the CLA is used to ensure towns are paying taxes based on the fair market value of property. The state performs a property value study each year, and the run-up in the sale prices of property during and after the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in lower CLAs statewide. A lower CLA makes for a higher tax rate.

In Chelsea, that would translate to an increase of 18 cents per $100 of assessed value in its homestead education tax rate, while Tunbridge would see a 20-cent increase.

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That means the owner of a primary residence assessed at $100,000 would see a tax increase of $180 in Chelsea and $200 in Tunbridge.

About two-thirds of households in Vermont pay their homestead education taxes based on income, not on property value, and households earning less than $47,000 are eligible for additional tax credits.

Strafford School District isn’t quite as far along in reworking its budget, Kinnarney said, and will consider three possible scenarios involving spending cuts and use of surplus funds at a special School Board meeting at 1 p.m. on Saturday and a regularly scheduled board meeting Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.

Two other districts in the White River Valley Supervisory Union will proceed with budget votes on Monday night, but one of those budgets will see a substantial adjustment.

Sharon School District plans to reduce its proposed $6.75 million budget by $475,000 by cutting a proposed transfer to a reserve fund in a motion from the floor of the district’s annual meeting, Kinnarney said. With that amendment, Sharon would see a tax rate increase of 6 cents, Kinnarney said.

“The work for us is to help folks understand how we got there, because it’s been a long journey,” he added.

The White River Unified District, which oversees schooling preK-12 in Bethel and Royalton, will have relatively steady tax rates, Kinnarney said.

Both the Sharon and White River meetings will be proceeded by a dinner, at 5 p.m., in Sharon and Bethel, respectively, and child care will be available at both meetings, Kinnarney said.

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