The cost to run the Lamoille South school district could increase by $640,000 next year, despite slightly fewer staff across the district’s three towns.

Or it could cost exactly the same, and taxes would still likely go up.

After two rounds of preliminary budget talks, the district is eyeing a $32.9 million budget for the year that begins July 1, an increase of roughly 2 percent over the current fiscal year.

Budget numbers are still preliminary, and there is still no clear revenue picture to see how much tax offset Lamoille South will see, according to Andy Lundeen, the district’s director of finance and operations. He said the district is still awaiting more revenue projections, such as money from the special education block and transportation aid, “to name a couple.”

Lundeen said at the Dec. 15 board meeting that the state tax department has established lower property and income yields, which have a way of increasing tax rates in the towns to make up the difference. At first blush, that looks like a 3.5 percent increase for homeowners and 10.2 percent for non-homestead property owners.

“Unfortunately, it’s not favorable,” Lundeen said.

The district is also waiting for the state to release its equalized pupil values and property appraisal data for the towns.

Superintendent Tracy Wrend was asked to also come up with an alternate level funded budget, just as an exercise to see how much tax savings could be achieved by getting rid of that proposed $640,000 increase. Wrend said that would entail “eliminating things that are the equivalent of additions” to the budget, if not cutting the actual things the administration proposes to add.

Case in point, Wrend said it is “absolutely critical” to hire a new physical education/health teacher to meet the needs in that area. So, to save that money, a high school English teacher position would likely be on the chopping block, as well as a classroom literacy coach, a position Wrend touted as increasingly important.

“A coach influences core instruction in the classroom, which is the most important and most powerful place to impact,” she said.

Other things to cut would include technology equipment that had been previously covered by grant funds, and try to go after those funds instead of relying on tax revenue; professional services to the tune of $60,000; and an elimination of the $200,000 capital fund transfer.

The latter is money put aside every budget year to pay for improvements to the schools as they come up.

Even with all those hypothetical cuts, there would still be about $100,000 increase in the budget. Wrend turned to the principals and asked them where they could cut, “if absolutely necessary.” She said she has a list of those positions if the board were to insist on a level-funded budget once a clearer revenue picture emerges.

“The word recommend is not the right word,” Wrend said. “Begrudgingly, if they had to survive with one less locally funded position, what would it be?”

Morristown board member Dick Shanley pointed out that, when it comes down to it, people want to know how much their taxes are going up. And, especially in Stowe and Morristown, the current year’s tax hike was significant — the budget was up 3.78 percent, but the tax increase was 5.5 cents in Morristown and nearly 11 cents in Stowe, and even higher for second homeowners.

Wrend said the board is in a tough spot because of a compressed budgeting schedule and scant word on revenues from Montpelier and Washington. But, she said, “it is reasonable to conclude” that even a level funded budget would likely lead to a tax increase.

Board chair David Bickford, of Morristown, said there’s very little cutting one can do to the “big ticket items” like staff, facilities and maintenance, with all the fixed costs associated with them. At the same time, he said he’s wary about “kicking the can down the road,” especially when it is becoming clear that a lot of students are going to need extra help making up academic ground lost during such a stressful learning environment as a global pandemic.

“I’ve been on budget reviews in the past and we have spent hours and hours and hours going through line items and coming away, really, with symbolic nickels and dimes,” Bickford said.

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