“Vote no”– is what newly established political action committee (PAC), “Citizens for an Affordable South Burlington, Inc.,” is encouraging residents to do, regarding the school district’s proposed $209.6 million bond article for a new joint middle/high school and athletic complex.
Since January, PAC supporters have worked to raise funds to promote awareness of the school’s project proposal cost with cost of the school’s proposed project with interest, said John Stern, the PAC’s director. And while some of the PAC supporters are actively engaged on the “Decision 2020” Facebook page, the two entities are not affiliated.
The group registered to become a PAC as per Vermont law. State law requires parties that have raised or spent more than $1,000 to influence a local election to file campaign finance reports with the Office of the Secretary of State. The PAC collects financial contributions from residents and does not have members, but there are a “couple hundred” people engaged in its conversations, Stern said. Collections have topped $1,500 and additional funds have been promised, he said, adding the money will be spent on promotional fliers and signs.
The PAC supporter’s concerns include the language of the proposed bond article and the “multigenerational burden” it represents, Stern said.
The ballot language lists the $209,588,828 million capital construction cost “plus interest,” instead of using the $345.667 million – which includes both the estimated principal and interest– discussed by the school board in January. The PAC supporters believe the district should include the estimate with interest on the ballot.
“We’ve heard from the school board why they have not put that on there. But again, the reason falls flat,” Stern said, acknowledging the board’s statements on how changes in interest rates and other factors could impact the total cost.
The bond article’s language is consistent with requirements, according to district superintendent David Young.
“The principal cost of borrowing is what is required to be in the bond language,” said Gary Marckres, South Burlington School District Director of Operations and Financial Management. He added that the bond article, in an effort to be transparent, notes interest is not included in the figure.
“Interest has such variability to it,” Young said. “When you ask for approval, you don’t speculate what the interest rate is going to be.”
The PAC supporters also believe residents should be presented with the right to vote on several options for school repairs and construction proposals, Stern said. And while the district’s Master Planning and Visioning process has included several years of research to form the proposal, the PAC supporters feel that releasing the project’s estimated cost and property tax impact in January, did not leave voters adequate time to make a decision for March 3, he added.
Stern said that there might be other avenues that could be explored to bring the total cost down such as a teaming up with other schools in the county to form shared STEM or performing arts spaces in existing buildings or new ones, or seeking public-private partnerships in which donors could help fund the building.
“The schools are not falling down,” he said. “Let’s vote ‘No,’ at this point. And, then, let’s re-engage in the dialogue and take the appropriate time to really understand what our options are and what we’re getting into.”
“Why are we looking at avenues like that? Why are we creating a tax burden strictly,” Stern asked. “I love the building, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s beautiful. I’d love to see that building. But I’d love to see it at a price that the tax community can afford.”
“Some people have done the numbers and they’re looking at this thinking, ‘I will have to move,’” he continued. “A lot of those people are seniors who’ve been in homes, they’re on fixed incomes, their homes have appreciated dramatically, their incomes have not.”
Resident Sandie Blair is one of the individuals who have contributed to the PAC.
“The reason that my husband and I contributed to the Vote No campaign was because the whole school bond cost of $345 million is beyond our ability to pay out of our meager retirement funds,” she said, “and there is no need to tear down two existing schools and to build two new ones.”
PAC supporter Emily Frazier Williams said her family’s concern is that the tax impact of the proposed new school complex will cause families to have to “pick and choose” which tax needs they can support going forward. She gave examples, including whether to support pay and benefits increases for teachers, or voting “yes” on other town budget needs. Williams also shared environmental concerns around demolishing the existing buildings and potentially cutting out some of the “green” features that were proposed for the new buildings in order to reduce costs.
“Families have financial limits and if we want to support future needs of our community, we need a realistic goal for the schools,” Williams said.
The Other Paper asked district officials for information and the calculations used to explain the potential tax rate impact for an individual with income sensitivity, using several combinations of household incomes and property values. For example, what the impact would be on an individual with a $30,000 household income and a home value of $200,000.
The district that there are multiple other assumptions it would need to know on an individual basis to make an informed income sensitivity calculation. Asked what those factors include, Marckres said the exact amount of the prior year’s tax bill, the amount of the prior year’s credit and the exact housesite value, were among the determinants.
“There’s up to 24 steps necessary for a taxpayer to determine the impact of their district school’s budget on their individual homestead property tax bill,” Young said.
“What we did is, we applied the amount of debt service in each year to our income sensitized property tax formula to determine the income sensitized property tax rate for South Burlington,” Marckres said. “So what that really calculated was the projected property tax credit impact analysis, we can’t look at all those other variables. We did the basic calculation of how someone’s property tax credit might be impacted by the debt service of each year.”
“We’re trying to be as transparent as we possibly can,” Young said. “Although the funding factors are complicated, you know, and it’s really hard to give you precise information when there’s so many variables in play.”
Stern said he has two high school aged children who do not attend public school.
“We moved here knowing we weren’t going to use the school system, but definitely supporters of a public school,” Stern said. “I see the value in a strong public school ... I think [the proposal is] a beautiful building. I’m not opposed to the building per se, but it’s a number. That is a great concern to me and the way in which it’s being financed.”
However, he notes that some of the PAC’s contributors do not support the building at all. And he added that the PAC will continue after March 3 in anticipation of the school board returning with a revised proposal.
“We just need a little more time,” he said. “Let’s find a better way.”