With the uncertainty of COVID-19 and mandatory Vermont pre K-12 school closures through April 6, the South Burlington School Board tabled its budget discussion on Monday, March 16. The board will pursue a new timeline, with the goal of having a revised budget proposal warned and ready for an early May vote.

On Town Meeting Day, South Burlington voters defeated a proposal for an FY21 budget proposal that would have represented an estimated 11.22% tax rate increase over the previous year’s budget.

Per the city charter, the school board had 30 days from the failed vote to present residents with a new budget proposal. Given the COVID-19 pandemic and Gov. Phil Scott’s directive that all pre K-12 schools close between March 18 and April 6 to help “flatten the curve,” board members and district officials felt it prudent to hold off on a vote.

School legal counsel interpreted room in the charter for a vote outside of the 30-day period and the Secretary of State’s office concurred, according to district counsel Joe McNeil. But the school board has a duty to “diligently pursue” another vote. McNeil said the decision is not routine practice, “but under these unique and difficult circumstances” counsel felt the board had flexibility.

Board Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald said she had originally believed absentee voting could serve for the previously anticipated April 2 election. But, she said, the tight timeframe of that vote coupled with the potentially increased number of absentee ballot requests would have posed a challenge.

The board has set its sights on May in an effort to be expeditious with a new budget and in the hope of having it approved before potential Reduction-In-Force notices are due to the South Burlington Educators Association.

The South Burlington Educators’ Association (SBEA) has agreed twice now to extend the date for potential notifications of Reduction-in-Force. Per the SBEA handbook, the district has until March 15 to notify the association of “any contemplated reduction stating curricula area and staff” that would take effect in September of the following year.

The district now has until May 2 to alert the SBEA leadership of a potential reduction.

A Reduction-in-Force is the termination of an employee due to lack of work, lack of funds, or otherwise pursuant to management rights.

Superintendent David Young said, given the governor’s order to close schools by March 18, he and the administrative staff had not had the opportunity to discuss additional layers of budget reductions to those outlined during the board’s March 11 meeting.

“We did do a quick broad brush of where the next steps would likely fall,” he said. “We’re currently at a 9.83% tax rate increase. I do want to inform the board that four percentage points of that are related to your city and your CLA [common level of appraisal].”

He said that budget is what he believes would allow the district to meet its “ends, outcomes.”

“If we need to go further, then I’ll be looking at those things that are not required,” Young said. “I don’t have exact, and nor do we want to scare a lot of people, this is not the time to do that, but we would be looking at transportation.”

Transportation is not required except for vocational technical education and special education, he said, adding it accounts for about $1 million of the district’s budget.

“Those are not required, [but] I believe those are critical to our ends,” he said. Young named several other areas the administration would consider all of which are not required services.

“I think that changes significantly the complexion of our district and the viability for it to continue to thrive and be a place where people want to move,” he said.

Several residents attended the meeting in person, while others participated via Zoom video conference or by streaming the meeting from RETN’s live feed. Chairs were set apart to allow for social distancing and only one seat was placed before the public comment microphone in contrast to the usual two seats.

Those physically present offered public comment via the microphone. Most asked the board to consider a level or near-level budget, particularly considering the current economic downturn.

Resident Annie Leupp asked the board when the public would have the opportunity to discuss budget numbers before a May vote.

Fitzgerald said email, phone calls and Zoom would be several options for public comment. The board looks to have a budget working session during its March 25 meeting.

Board member Martin Lalonde encouraged the administration to look at additional reductions including to program offerings. Young said he believed South Burlington faced unique challenges like growing enrollment at a time when most Vermont schools have declining enrollment.

“It would be nice if we could get a vote in April if at all possible,” board member Alex McHenry added.

Board member Bridget Burkhardt said an April vote likely wouldn’t be possible given warning dates for an election and the needs for printing absentee and regular ballots as well as gathering workers for the polling places.

“I don’t see how we’re going to have a real public discourse kind of meeting with additional recommendations from [Young] and the administrative team until the second week of April at the earliest,” she said, adding that also assumes April 6 will be the end of the school closure. “I just don’t see how that timing works given where we are with coronavirus.”

Resident Margot Rogers asked the board what would happen if a May budget proposal failed at the ballot.

If the second budget proposal fails the board will look to Reduction-in-Force and level-funding, Fitzgerald said.

“It doesn’t mean we have a level-funded budget; it would mean contractually we’d be obligated to provide Reduction-in-Force notifications and start to operate that way or prepare to operate that way,” she said. “Our goal, under state statute, would be to diligently pursue getting a voter-approved budget and that can go to a third vote at that point.”

Leupp offered additional comment on the decision to table discussion, as well as what she hoped to see in a future proposal.

“The coronavirus is like nothing we have ever faced before in our modern economic times,” she said. “There has already been and will be devastating financial losses throughout the entire nation including into our small city of South Burlington.”

Leupp said the district’s first proposal was “outrageous” and the reduction board members and administration discussed during the March 11 meeting was still too costly.

“Your initial proposal for a 7.96% school budget increase leading to an 11.22% tax rate increase to us taxpayers, it was outrageous … the last week … you managed to whittle it down a meager 1.1% expecting us taxpayers to still be willing to absorb a nearly 10% increase to our school taxes. It was nothing short of an insult to this entire city.”

“People are awake now, no one feels secure in this economic disaster,” Leupp continued.

She suggested the board present a near-level budget proposal, “perhaps 1% tops.”

Several other community members offered similar sentiments.

The Other Paper reached out to board chair Fitzgerald to ask if the board would consider proposing level or near-level budget.

“I think we have to let administration do their work to come back with a revised budget,” Fitzgerald said. Due to budget increases outside the district’s control a level funded budget would likely go below the current operating budget, she said.

The district also recognizes it is likely to incur additional expense due to the current closure and containment efforts, Fitzgerald added.

The next budget working session is currently scheduled for March 25. The board will encourage public feedback through remote forums such as phone calls, emails and Zoom, Fitzgerald said.

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