The budget’s up for the Lamoille North school district, and taxes are likely to follow.

The district, which operates elementary schools in Eden, Hyde Park, Johnson and Waterville along with Lamoille Union Middle and High schools, is proposing a 2020-21 school budget of nearly $25.6 million — $1.25 million more than the $24.3 million budget voters approved for the current school year.

That 5.15 percent increase is expected to raise the property tax on primary residences to $1.5952 per $100 of property value, up 7 cents from the current rate of $1.5235. That would add $71 to the tax bill on a $100,000 house.

The Lamoille North school board approved the budget proposal on Monday, sending it for voters to decide in all-day balloting on Town Meeting Day March 3. The elementary and middle and high school budgets will be considered separately.

The districtwide tax estimate doesn’t factor in each town’s common level of appraisal — a measure of how closely town valuations are to market value. Once the common level of appraisal set by the state is factored in for all six Lamoille North towns — Belvidere, Cambridge, Eden, Hyde Park, Johnson and Waterville — a separate tax rate will be set for each community.

“When Eden looks at its education tax rate, it’s the same as all the other member towns,” explained Deb Clark, school business manager. “But the CLA changes that; it mucks it up.”

Lamoille North will hold its annual meeting to discuss school business on Monday, Feb. 17, at 7 p.m. at the Green Mountain Technology and Career Center. An informational meeting on the budget will be held on Monday, Feb. 24 at 6 p.m., also at the tech center.

Rising costs

The $25.6 million budget covers all elementary schools except Cambridge, which remains a standalone school district, and Lamoille Union middle and high schools.

The elementary budget is just over $12 million, up $620,314, 5.44 percent, from current spending. The middle and high school budget is about $13.6 million, up $633,048, or 4.89 percent.

State education officials had predicted school spending across Vermont would increase 5.01 percent.

Many factors behind the budget increase are “not in our control,” Cat Gallagher, the school superintendent, told the board on Monday.

• About $1 million of the $1.25 million budget increase is for pay and benefits for employees, Clark said, and rising health insurance costs are a major factor. Insurance rates have added $152,371 to the elementary budget and $93,767 to the middle and high school budget.

• Mandated increases in the district’s contributions to the Vermont State Teachers Retirement System added $16,470 to the elementary budget and $11,492 to the middle and high school budget.

• The Hyde Park Electric Department is raising its rates 15 percent, which affects Hyde Park Elementary, the Lamoille Union campus and the Lamoille North Supervisory Union offices. The rate hike adds $42,780 to the school budget.

• Property insurance rates are up $17,405; a change in the food contract for Johnson Elementary will add $25,000 to the budget.

• The voter-approved project to renovate the gym and auditorium at Lamoille Union is now on the books, and the annual payment on the construction loan adds $63,000 to the budget.

The budget’s tax impact would have been larger if school revenues hadn’t been rising — grants, tuition, rental fees and other sources. Elementary school revenues are projected to rise $15,512 to a total of $855,902, and middle and high school revenues are up $70,887 to $1,130,853. The board also voted to use $248,451 left over from the previous budget to reduce the amount needed from taxes.

Fixed costs

With so many required expenses, it’s tough to cut the budget significantly.

The $25.6 million proposal continues existing services, Clark said, including support services for students at all levels.

“Getting student support services into elementary schools has been an initiative over the last couple of years,” Clark said. That effort first really showed in the current budget, and continues in the proposed one.

“Student-facing services are the only places to cut,” Clark said.

The Lamoille North board’s finance subcommittee had asked administrators to lay out possible cuts.

Trimming 1 cent from the tax rate would require shaving $133,000 from the elementary budget, Clark said, or $191,000 from the middle and high school. That 1-cent reduction would reduce taxes on a $100,000 house by $10.

Budget cuts that size would require a “significant cut to student services,” Clark said. “These are needed services. If the taxpayers say no, there are some hard decisions to make after that.”

“The taxpayers can come back and say no, this isn’t OK,” said board member Laura Miller of Cambridge, who’s on the finance committee.

“When the administrators showed us the cuts, it was all programs and positions. Not people in the background, or positions that don’t exist yet. It would all impact students,” said board member Mark Stebbins of Cambridge.

“It’s already stuff we’re giving them; we’d be taking it away if we cut it,” Miller said.

Support for the budget proposal was not universal, though.

“I’m not big on this budget,” said Hyde Park board member Patti Hayford. Voters need to be informed about factors that are driving up the budget.

“Things we don’t have control over are what is driving our budget,” Gallagher reiterated. “We need to explain what’s out of our control, and here is what we are supporting.”

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