In poker it’s referred to as being all in. This year the Champlain Valley School District has decided to go all in on diversity.

After lots of recent conversation about the district’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in its schools, the school board is proposing a budget that will increase spending nearly 5 percent and a tax increase that will pay for new staff toward this goal.

Board members are beginning their annual round of budget presentations, going to local selectboards and Rotary meetings to make a case for next year’s budget and tax increase.

In addition to objectives like maintaining class sizes and social emotional learning, chief operations officer Jeanne Jensen said, “We’re putting our money where our mouth is on the diversity, equity, inclusion work.”

Total district spending proposed for 2022-23 represents a 4.8 percent increase from $9 million to $9.45 million.

Since 2018 when schools in Shelburne, Charlotte, Hinesburg and Williston consolidated into the Champlain Valley School District, the budget increase has hovered around 3.5 percent per year.

The bump this year is due primarily to new staffing, Jensen said. The new staffing represents seven positions — four diversity, equity and inclusion positions; two regular teaching positions for a couple of schools where class sizes have gone up; and a data manager.

Who those four diversity, equity and inclusion hires will be and where they will work won’t be determined until after the school system has its director of diversity, equity and inclusion in place, the budget has been passed and an upcoming equity audit is completed, Bonnie Birdsall, director of digital learning and communication, said.

In November, the board voted to conduct an equity audit, which starts this month. A first draft of its findings should be ready by July.

The school system has been searching for a director of diversity, inclusion and equity since September when its second director of diversity in as many years resigned because of issues with COVID-19.

Enrollment drop

One concerning thing in the budget report is a drop in the number of students. Although Charlotte Central School’s enrollment went up by eight and Shelburne Community Schoool gained 27, Hinesburg lost 18. But the really big drops came at Williston schools (40) and Champlain Valley Union High (25).

Jensen admitted with all the growth that’s going on in Williston such a big decrease in enrollment there was “kind of a shock.”

The shock is somewhat tempered by the size of Williston schools. Although 40 students stand out next to other schools in the district, the two schools in Williston have a much bigger student body — about 900 students — almost twice as much as Hinesburg, Jensen said.

Champlain Valley High School is down 25 students, but that’s from a student body of more than 1,300 — one of the largest schools in the state.

Jensen said the high school had an exceptionally large graduating class last year, and that’s part of the reason for fewer students this year.

Nonetheless, the drop in students is an issue the school system wants to know more about.

“We’re going to see if we can pull out a sharper pencil and figure out if it is people moving away? Is it just this class is a little bit smaller? We’ll try to figure that out,” Jensen said. “We’ve also signed a contract with a demographer to come in and do more of an in-depth analysis.”

The district wants to look at growth and housing starts to make better projections of attendance numbers to avoid the surprise that came this year.

The drop in students is what Jensen describes as “headwinds” affecting the budget. The other headwind is a drop in revenue.

This year, the district proposes to only take $1 million out of its fund balance. Last year it applied more than $2 million from the fund balance to the budget.

The fund balance, or surplus money, comes from revenue that exceeded budget expectations, lower expenses than what was budgeted or money saved from school consolidation in 2018. The school system started consolidation with a rather large fund balance that it has been gradually spending down.

School district officials say they want to keep a fund balance of at least $1 million, the amount auditors recommended be kept on hand for emergency spending needs. Rather than spending a huge amount from the fund balance on the budget in one year and causing wild swings up and down in tax rates, Jensen said, they try to level out dipping into this money to cover expenses over three years.

Lessening the impact of less revenue and fewer students is a $90 million windfall the state has unexpectedly found in its budget. Jensen said this bonus appears to primarily come from higher than predicted sales tax revenues in Vermont.

After the funding formula the state applies to assess taxes — the common level of appraisal, which is often referred to as the CLA — is applied it will mean good news for some towns in the district.

The common level of appraisal is the difference between the total of a town’s assessed property on its grand list and the fair market value of that property, to ensure that properties reflect their actual values as closely as possible.

In Charlotte, the proposed budget will mean the property tax rate will drop from $1.54 to $1.49 or taxes that will be $49.53 lower per $100,000 of property value.

In Hinesburg the education tax rate will go up one cent, from $1.56 to $1.57, or $9.47 per $100,000 of property value.

In Shelburne the education tax rate will also drop, from $1.60 to $1.57, meaning taxes per $100,000 of property value will go down $33.37.

The first school budget presentation, with board member Ken Scott, took place Tuesday night at the Shelburne Selectboard meeting after the Shelburne News went to press.

Birdsall said other budget presentations have been scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 3, at the Williston Rotary, Tuesday, Feb. 8, at the Shelburne Community School PTO meeting and Wednesday, Feb. 23, at the Charlotte-Shelburne-Hinesburg Rotary.

Board members are looking to schedule presentations for selectboard meetings in Hinesburg, Charlotte and Williston.

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