District presents $39.1M budget

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Colchester superintendent Amy Minor is pictured at a school board meeting earlier this year. (Photo by Tom Marble)

Colchester superintendent Amy Minor is pictured at a school board meeting earlier this year. (Photo by Tom Marble)

The Colchester School Board approved a $39.1 million fiscal year 2018 budget late last month, signifying a 3.2 percent general fund increase from FY17.

The proposed budget comes up just lower than the 3.5 percent five-year average budget increase in Colchester, and levies an estimated 4.03 percent tax increase – approximately 5.6 cents. The average homestead tax increase over the past five years in Colchester is 3.1 percent, district numbers show.

With the proposed budget, the owner of a $250,000 home in Colchester can expect to pay $143 more annually than in the current fiscal year, according to CSD superintendent Amy Minor. This doesn’t account for income sensitivity reductions, which apply to 70 percent of Colchester residents, Minor said.

The town’s common level of appraisal, a figure used to create the education tax rate, affected budgeting, Minor said.

After the town appealed assessment values for five properties to the state, the state gave Colchester a CLA range instead of just one percentage. Colchester used the low end of the range – 95.25 percent – in its budget estimates. If the state sets a higher CLA in May, the education tax rate could decrease, Minor said.

“When your CLA goes up, taxes go down,” Minor said.

In terms of education spending per equalized pupil, which will be reflected on ballots for the second consecutive year when voters hit the polls on March 7, the spending plan represents a proposed 5.97 percent increase, totaling $14,091.51.

Much of that increase is due to the Act 166 prekindergarten law, Minor said.

When the act took effect two years ago, the district had to estimate the number of students who would be enrolled. It turned out the estimate was too high, which resulted in a tax rate decrease of 1.87 percent.

“In FY18, the equalized pupils for pre-K have leveled out, which translates to a 5.97 percent increase in per pupil spending,” Minor said in an email to The Sun.

Minor also noted it’s vital for residents to understand that this increase, which will appear on ballots, is not the school budget increase, nor is it the amount taxes will increase.

In FY17, Colchester spent less per pupil than the average in both Chittenden County and statewide while ranking in the top quarter of county schools on state assessment exams.

Although Vermont school districts were encouraged to keep per pupil spending down, Minor said Colchester’s comparatively low spending is a “double-edged sword” in some aspects.

“We’re one of only two schools in Chittenden County that only teaches two languages,” Minor said. “You can be really proud that we’re being fiscally conservative and our students are still obtaining high achievement scores, or you can also turn around and say we should be spending more because we are providing a basic educational program.”

In preparation for shaping the FY18 budget, Minor asked principals in the district to compile a list of priorities they wanted to see reflected in the board’s budget proposal.

The feedback, which included professional development, athletics, social work and an English learner position as top priorities, was then sorted into three different proposal options and analyzed by the board.

Ultimately, trustees landed on the middle-of-the-road option, choosing to secure $45,000 for professional development, $40,000 for athletics and agreeing to a 20-hour per week English learner position.

Professional development funds are allocated to teacher trainings both in and out of the district focused on keeping teachers up to date on current instruction methods.

In FY18 specifically, these monies will target two priorities: equity training to further develop culturally competent employees and science curriculum development, Minor said.

Reductions for the proposed budget total $148,000, with the board opting to trim $10,000 from professional development and $18,000 from athletics while also nixing three paraeducator positions – a reduction of $75,000.

In FY17, the district added $58,000 to athletics to ensure there was enough money to pay referees through the duration of the school year, Minor said. Prior to that addition, the school frequently did not have the funds to pay officials in the spring sports season, she said.

With the athletics budget scaled back by nearly a third in the FY18 proposal, the district will have to rely on community members, fundraisers and boosters to help support spring sports.

“We will again be asking for some donations to help us cover some of the spring sports. And the reason why it is the spring and not fall is because the spring sports season comes last,” Minor said.

In terms of the reduced paraeducator positions, Minor said it was an area she identified where funds could be saved without negatively impacting students.

“We’ve done work in our support services area, and I believe that we can still provide the same level of services with reducing three paraeducators,” Minor said.

The last reduction in the proposal – $45,000 earmarked to hire a social worker at Malletts Bay School – eliminated a newly proposed position.

Colchester School District spent less per pupil than both the average in Chittenden County and statewide in fiscal year 2017. The rates for FY18 is not yet available. (Source: Colchester School District)

Colchester School District spent less per pupil than both the average in Chittenden County and statewide in fiscal year 2017. The rates for FY18 is not yet available. (Source: Colchester School District)

The position landed on the initial list of top priorities when Minor heard about the “growing need” for social workers from principals across the district.

With the addition of preschoolers to Malletts Bay School and with fewer social workers in the building in past years due to prior budget cuts, Minor thought it was vital for the board to consider the position.

“One of the trends that we are seeing district-wide is on the trauma or support students need because they are impacted by the opiate crisis in some way, shape or form,” she said. “And that’s really impacting our K-5 schools in a significant way.”

To find out more about the budget, click on the school district website, csdvt.org. Colchester resident Toni Josey will host a home presentation of the budget February 15 at 6:30 p.m.; another is scheduled at Mazza’s General Store on March 1 at 6 p.m.

Polls are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Colchester High School on Town Meeting Day, Tuesday, March 7. There is no voter registration deadline, and early and absentee voting information is available at the town clerk’s office, or online at https://mvp.sec.state.vt.us.