“Congratulations. And, condolences.” That was David Bickford, chair of the Lamoille South school board, after the board signed off Monday night on a $32,275,750 budget proposal for the 2020-21 school year.
The congratulations: This is the first time in history that a board representing the collective population of Morristown, Stowe and Elmore has ever crafted a single budget for educating children in all three towns.
The condolences? It’s a budget that will lead to steep increases in Stowe and Morristown property tax bills, even though it’s about as lean as school officials are comfortable endorsing.
After nearly two months of number-crunching — along with hours spent crafting policies aimed at bringing equity and fairness to the three-town district that was formed only last July 1 — it’s now out of the school boards members’ hands. Voters in all three towns will vote either for or against a single budget on Town Meeting Day, March 3.
The budget is 3.78 percent higher than current spending.
But taxpayers in Morristown and Stowe will face increases far above that, under the property tax formulas the state uses. Morristown residents face an increase of 5.7 cents per $100 of property value, and Stowe residents an increase of 10.9 cents.
In other words, property tax on a Stowe home valued at $500,000 would increase by $550.
In Elmore, meanwhile, the tax rate would go down a couple of cents.
Owners of second homes and businesses in Stowe and Morristown get hit even harder with, respectively, 13.3-cent and 7.4-cent increases.
“Never in my 13 years has it been this high,” superintendent Tracy Wrend said.
Wrend said Morristown voters are more accustomed to approving increases under 5 cents, which isn’t the case this year.
A large part of these changes stem from the towns’ common levels of appraisal. That’s the measure of the difference between how much a town says properties are worth and what the actual fair market value ought to be, according to the state of Vermont.
Stowe’s common level of appraisal has dropped 3.58 percent, and is now under 91 percent of fair market value, which means the state inflates property values in that town, leading to a higher property tax bill.
More than half the tax rate increase can be pinned to the common level of appraisal, but Stowe board member Norm Williams doesn’t think his town has the stomach for such an increase. He’s worried Stoweites will shoot down the budget.
“That’s a hard sell,” Williams said. “We could stand on street corners, we could go house to house and say that 6 cents is not under our control, but a 13-cent increase? I can’t see that passing.”
Defending an increase
Here’s some advice for Stowe voters headed to town meeting March 3 expecting to see a $12 million budget and to hear the school board explain it: Don’t.
Tiffany Donza, one of the three Stowe representatives on the Lamoille South board, predicted that’s exactly what some Stowe voters are going to do March 3. Donza said that, despite near-constant coverage of the merging of the three towns into one school district, it hasn’t sunk in with some people that they no longer control their own school budget.
She said when voters go to cast their ballots and see a $32 million budget, “There’s going to be a backlash.”
Coming up with an overall budget for the merged district isn’t as easy as simply adding the old budgets from Stowe and the Elmore-Morristown school districts and coming up with a new sum. According to Lamoille South finance director Andy Lundeen, the central office budget used to be baked into the individual district’s budgets in the form of assessments. Now, it’s part of the whole unified district, and thus those assessments are eliminated.
As much pain as voters may feel for the 2020-21 budget, the one after that will likely be an even harder pill to swallow. That’s because board members have gone back and forth over the past couple of months about work needed at the various elementary and high schools, and will need to address those a year from now.
For now, Lundeen said, “None of these are lifesaving or immediate projects.”
Donza was on a roll Monday night with complaints about how the state forced this merger and the seven members of the board now have to face the voters. What if, at the end of the legislative session, lawmakers decide that under Act 46 mergers the state can start ordering schools to close?
“I don’t want to be all doomsday, but we’ve seen how things operate down there,” she said. “I get worried about never being in the driver’s seat.”
Added Bickford, “(It was) a forced marriage. And there was no dowry.”