South Burlington taxpayers will be asked to approve a $62.5 million school budget this month as the school board and members of the public Jan. 4 looked over a proposed final budget outlining expected increases and changes.

“We are excited to present to the board and community a budget that does the difficult task of meeting student’s needs off the back of a pandemic which has increased social, emotional and academic needs,” South Burlington superintendent Violet Nichols said.

“First and foremost, we wanted to develop a fiscally responsible budget, taking all of the current economic conditions into consideration, not just the macro headwinds that we’re facing because of all the other factors, but also recognizing that families are also facing economic headwinds as well,” added Tim Jarvis, the district’s director of operations and finance. “A huge spending budget was just not compatible with what our community is going through.”

According to school district officials, South Burlington residents will be asked to approve a $62,528,029 school budget, a 7.17 percent increase from last year, which will result in a 3.96 percent residential tax rate increase, from last year’s $1.295 to $1.3468. Before income sensitivity, for every $100,000 of a home’s value, taxes will total $1,347, a $51 increase from 2023.

“The data doesn’t suggest that this is crazy,” said Jarvis. “We have enjoyed two years in a row of tax decreases. But I started looking at the averages and if you look at the historical tax rates over the past five years the average tax rate was 1.5555.”

The major component that influences the tax rates is the common level of appraisal, or CLA, which reflects the ratio between the grand list of assessed value of South Burlington properties compared to actual values in the marketplace. The CLA decreased from 100.99 percent to 92.97 percent for fiscal year 2024.

“If you look at the state, we were far from being alone in that situation. Ninety-four percent of all the towns in the state had a decrease in their CLA,” said Jarvis. “The average of that decrease was 8.78 percent.”

Cost increase

Employee salaries and benefits take up nearly 78 percent of the budget with teachers making up over 65 percent of the employee pie chart. One of the major factors contributing the increased budget is the nearly 12.7 increase in estimated health insurance costs, along with the ongoing labor shortage requiring significant market adjustments to attract and retain employees, school district officials noted.

Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funding that was used to offset pandemic-related expenditures and support education recovery efforts is set to decline significantly for next year.

Total enrollment for the district is also set to increase by 50, putting upward pressure on all supplies, professional services and equipment.

The district is also planning to ask for a bond for nearly $15 million, with $6 million for the costs of implementing zero-energy modular classrooms and $8.55 million for various capital improvements. No principal payments will be required until 2025, but the district will be responsible for two separate interest-only payments amounting to $436,762.

Full-time employees

The district saw a surge in full-time employees in 2023, mostly due to the pandemic relief funding and the hiring of more than 20 staff. With ESSER funds significantly reduced in the proposed budget, total staff is set to decrease by 23.75, for a total of totaling 509 full-time equivalent employees compared to 533 in 2023.

“Even though we really believe that those resources are beneficial and, in many cases, required to support our student needs, we are almost caught in a compromise or almost a contradiction between we know we need them, but we know we also can’t afford them in the local “budget,” Jarvis said. “So, we made very difficult decisions, had very difficult discussions and felt that where we have landed is the right place today with student needs and fiscal responsibilities.”

The board did find room in the budget to retain three of those positions with the remaining ESSER funds — a student engagement coordinator, a math interventionist and a communications coordinator. The district has also closed eight of its 28 open positions.

Nichols explained that many of the ESSER-funded positions in 2023 were one-year positions.

“It is not as cut and dry to say that if someone is currently funded with ESSER that they won’t have a job next year, because we do have the ability to use grant funding or local funding,” she continued. “This shouldn’t induce panic. ... It is not solidified at this point in time.”

Some of the ESSER-funded positions that could not be cut have been transferred to the local budget, including a half-time equivalent for art, three math interventionists and a special education coordinator.

Members are set to vote and approve this budget with minor changes at the school board meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 11, after The Other Paper goes to press.

“We are already working and will continue to work on how to sell this and how to educate the community in what it is we’re proposing and why we’re proposing it,” said Jarvis.

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