With Vermont facing an education fund deficit of at least $50 million, school boards and property-tax weary constituents across the state have a challenging budget season ahead.
The budget season for school boards is underway, with initial meetings taking place in late October and a deadline to approve final budgets in January, ahead of Town Meeting Day in March.
Earlier this month, Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe warned superintendents and school board members that the annual planning ritual is now burdened with “an almost $50 million Education Fund budget gap, due in large part to use of one-time money to reduce the tax rate.”
Unless local school boards can make big cuts, the statewide property tax is projected to see a 7- to 9-cent increase.
“This all just comes down to the priorities of the community … and oftentimes we have to make tough decisions,” Mark Porter, chair of the Burlington School Board, said of the looming budget battle.
Porter says starting with a deficit is nothing new in Vermont, and that there’s a method to budget season that stays consistent no matter the starting point.
“Last year we were starting in the negative also … it’s not unheard of to be working from a hole,” he said.
“We don’t work from the fear, we look to what happens afterwards. The first thing we have to do is build a budget, so [we ask] what are the needs of the community.”
One challenge each year for school budgets is that the tax rate isn’t determined until after the board approves a budget in January. For instance, last year Porter’s board approved a budget with a 2.25 percent tax increase and number didn’t hold for even 24 hours.
“Overnight the state released some numbers including the common level of appraisal, and without even adding a dollar to our budget our decision resulted in a 5.88 percent tax increase,” he said. “And we had nothing to do with it.”
As far as what’s causing the state’s deficit, Porter said a “pool of things,” including the level of special education funding, the level of grants, and funds and revenues that are no longer available.
Away from Burlington, rural school board counterparts are under increased pressure with the state’s aging population and fewer kids in the system, even as the number of teachers and administrators stays the same.
Chris Tormey, chair of the Cabot School Board, represents one of those rural communities which is struggling to maintain itself amid dwindling attendance. His school so far has narrowly escaped consolidation under Act 46, Vermont’s district merger law. He said the news about the deficit puts a strain on the board.
“We’ve gotten early indication from Holcombe that there’s going to be a hole and that certainly is going to make it more difficult,” he said. “It’s pretty early in our budget season as far as seeing how we might deal with it but it’s going to be tough.”
He also said that this is not the first time a budget season has begun with unpleasant state news, and added that board members try their best to protect personnel when trimming budgets. But it’s always on the table.
“Most folks in education would tell you that very few schools have additional programs that do not involve staff which they can make much reductions in,” he said. “So, if you are going to make any significant reductions in cost, it almost always involves staffing reductions.”
Tormey added that he welcomes any outside support. He attended a School Board Association meeting last month, and continues to look for answers for how to mitigate the impact of cuts on people and educational quality.