The Lamoille South school board is steeling itself to defend a budget it feels does right by students while explaining why tax bills will go up.
It’s the first school budget since Elmore, Morristown and Stowe were forced to merge into a single school district last year.
As of Monday, proposed spending for the next school year was just under $32.3 million, an increase of 3.78 percent. The package is still preliminary, and the school board will work the numbers at least twice more before asking voters in the three towns to approve the budget on Town Meeting Day, March 3.
David Bickford of Morristown, the school board chair, agreed with his colleagues that the proposed budget would provide satisfactory education. Some of them yearn for more services for the kids, but realize, as Stowe board member Tiffany Donza noted, “money isn’t gonna fall from the sky.”
Bickford pointed out that tax increases aren’t likely to be the same in each of the three Lamoille South towns.
Norm Williams, a Stowe representative on the board, said he didn’t get on the board to cut education funding.
“There ain’t much left to cut, other than educational programs,” said Williams, a recently retired Stowe High School social studies teacher. “In the end, all we can do is try to sell this to the taxpayers.”
Here’s what the board is selling.
If the budget were adopted today, proposed expenses would increase 3.78 percent. And the school district would receive a 4.6 percent increase in revenue from the state education fund, about $26.4 million. The rest of the revenue would come from myriad sources, notably special education reimbursements, grants, tuition, and carryover from the district’s cash reserves.
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, a Stowe tax bill for a home valued at half a million dollars would increase by $500.
In Elmore, meanwhile, the tax rate would go down a couple of cents.
A large part of these changes are attributable to 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, down to under 91 percent of fair market value, which means the state inflates property values in that town, leading to a higher property tax bill.
On the other hand, Elmore’s common level of appraisal went up 4.25 percent, which means the state would deflate property values there, leading to a lower tax bill.
Superintendent Tracy Wrend said Stowe often appeals the state’s common level of appraisal, and board member Norm Williams, who used to be on the Stowe Select Board, added the town usually wins those appeals — there’s just so much variability in the Stowe housing market.
“I doubt Elmore (residents) will appeal their CLA,” Wrend said.