Even if the Lamoille South school district didn’t spend a dime more next year, fluctuations in property value appraisals in Elmore, Morristown and Stowe will still lead to higher tax rates.
It’s impossible to simply re-submit the same budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 as the current one due to fixed increases associated with union-negotiated teacher salaries and benefits, but the district is proposing a lean budget that holds the line on staffing and decreases special education spending.
As of Jan. 5, total expenditures for next year are pegged at $32.89 million, an increase from the prior year of $611,000, or 1.9 percent.
According to finance and operations director Andy Lundeen, special education revenue estimates from the Vermont Agency of Education included modest increases to the special education block grant and the essential early education grant, the district’s overall special education spending is anticipated to be about 1 percent lower next year.
Superintendent Tracy Wrend said the state’s special education funding formula is “right at the beginning of a change process” mandated in Act 173, meant to provide assistance with special education “so that really high costs associated with individual students don’t have a significant negative impact on the budget development process or on programming overall.”
As an example, Wrend said, “In Elmore, in the old days, if a student who had a $150,000 program moved into town, that could destroy either their programming or their budget, or both.”
As of the school board’s Jan. 5 budget talks, the state had not yet established the estimated tax rates and per-pupil costs. The state has not yet released on its website the town-by-town information on the common level of appraisal, although Lundeen said he’s received information on the three towns in the district.
The common level of appraisal is a measure of how closely a town’s overall assessed value of properties compares to their fair market value, as determined by the state. Fluctuations in the common level of appraisal mean fluctuations in tax rates.
School board chair David Bickford said he was worried about how the common level of appraisal is affecting rates.
“And it seems to hit most heavily on Morristown,” Bickford said.
Lundeen said, indeed, Morristown’s 5 percent drop in the common level of appraisal is the most significant of the three towns, which will lead to a more significant increase to Morristown’s education tax rate.
Behind closed doors
After its Dec. 29 and Jan. 5 meetings, the Lamoille South board took action after meeting in executive session to discuss personnel matters. What action they took, though, remains a mystery.
These closed-door sessions are normal occurrences for boards, which use them as opportunities to discuss topics that “would clearly place the body or a person involved at a substantial disadvantage” if the general public was able to listen in, according to Vermont open meeting laws.
The Dec. 29 executive session came at the end of a brief special meeting in which the closed-door session — even in Zoom, the public is kicked out of the virtual meeting — was essentially the only agenda item outside the typical Lamoille South agenda boilerplate.
The board came out of executive session and unanimously voted to “approve the agreement as presented by David and Penny in executive session tonight,” referring to Bickford and board member Penny Jones. The following week, Jan. 5, the board again went into executive session, and when it came out, it voted unanimously to “affirm the action” taken at the previous meeting.
Despite voting to approve the agreement, and a week later affirming that decision, school district officials are not saying what that agreement entailed.
“We are unable to release the terms of the agreement,” Bickford said over the phone last week. “It will emerge, and it will emerge relatively soon.”
A Jan. 8 public records request seeking further information had not been answered as of press time.
Also at the Jan. 5 meeting:
• The district set its tuition rate for elementary and secondary school students who don’t live in Elmore, Morristown or Stowe, $15,400 for elementary tuition and $17,100 for secondary. Lundeen said that calculation is made by taking expenditures — excluding some things, such as pre-K, transportation and special education costs — and dividing that by enrollment.
• Wrend noted that the terms for Morristown school board member — and vice chair — Stephanie Craig and Stowe board member Norm Williams are up as of March 2, Town Meeting Day. Neither of them indicated whether they would run again or not, but getting on the town meeting ballot is “the easiest it’s ever been,” Wrend said, since there is no need to collect signatures while Vermont’s pandemic rules are still in effect.