School board gets early look at budget, Gov. Scott proposal

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Colchester taxpayers got an early look into the upcoming school budget season last week as board members laid out their fiscal priorities and offered preliminary responses to Gov. Phil Scott’s call for level funding.

“What the governor is constantly communicating, and it’s only going to increase, is enrollment is declining … and that spending is going up,” school board member Lincoln White said at the Nov. 21 meeting. “We are getting painted with that brush.”

But superintendent Amy Minor said Colchester’s enrollment is steadily rising, despite the vernacular in Vermont.

In a letter to Vermont school boards obtained by the Sun, Scott asked districts to propose budgets with a 0 percent increase in per pupil spending if their student count is declining, a principle he plans to apply to executive branch agencies and departments.

Scott implored the districts seeing increased enrollment, like Colchester, to apply his “growth rate calculation” to their per pupil spending numbers. The formula measures state economic and wage growth over the past six years. Scott estimates the state figure will fall around 2.5 percent and said confirmation would come early next month.

“Approaches to achieving these spending targets will vary across the state, and my administration is committed to working with you to develop a range of tools to support and accelerate innovation,” Scott wrote, adding his staff plan to host an “education summit” in mid-December.

District business manager George Trieb said Colchester could expect a 3.81 percent baseline increase alone if every service contained in the current budget was rolled over into the fiscal year 2019 proposal.

Some board members seemed dubious about Scott’s proposal, especially amid concerns the Medicaid and Consolidated Federal Grant funding for many staff positions and items may be significantly reduced or eliminated entirely over the next three years.

“That’s a little bit of a risk in the way that we budget for many of those positions,” Minor said, noting items like school supplies for homeless students, the English Language Learner summer offering and a handful of support staff salaries source funding from the programs.

“Are we missing out on a possibility that we need to be more aggressive in that respect?” board chairman Mike Rogers asked of the board’s communication strategy. “Look, we’re not East Belvidere or Barre. This is Colchester, these are our numbers and this is the budget that reflects that … Do we need to be more proactive?”

School board member Craig Kieny later asked what would hit the cutting room floor to keep the spending increase around 2.75 percent. Minor estimated each full percentage point runs about $400,000, or the equivalent of 4.5 teachers.

“I’m not saying this should be our target, but I do think we’ll be asked to explain something over 2.5 [percent] with a lot of confidence and clarity,” White added.

School board member Curt Taylor threw out more specific scenarios, asking how much money would be saved by cutting the football program, for example, or lowering the temperature of the school buildings by a degree or so.

Minor asked all board members to bring further early inclinations on a target spending increase range, priorities they’d like to see included in the FY19 budget and any other information needed to the Dec. 5 meeting.