Editor's Note: This article was written by Brian Behrens, a student at the University of Vermont and a reporter for the Community News Service, a student-powered partnership with local community newspapers.
COLCHESTER — The Colchester School District's budget proposal is increasing by about $2 million this year, driven by hard-to-negotiate health care and transportation costs. District leaders say they were wary of increasing costs further during a pandemic.
Superintendent Amy Minor said COVID-19 played a big role in the school board's decision-making this year.
“That's why you see us maintaining our current level of services without, you know, more additions to the budget,” Minor said. “They wanted to be respectful of the economic climate, not only in Colchester but across the U.S. And they were trying to bring forward to the community, a budget that they think our community could support.”
On Jan. 19, the board voted remotely to approve their $46,679,911 budget proposal for the 2022 fiscal year. During the board’s following meeting on Feb. 2, Board Member Curt Taylor explained the boards’ position to propose a budget of a little over $2 million more than last year.
What is driving the increase
Board Member Lindsey Cox indicated within the same meeting that health care and transportation were some of the main factors within the district’s budget.
“Just over 10% of our total budget goes to health care,” Cox said. “Another component of our budget is ensuring students can get to school safe and ready to learn which regards transportation. Colchester is a big district and we have kids coming from lots of different places to our campus. Student transportation is around 8% of our total budget.”
These two driving factors were also significantly responsible for the $2 million budget increase, Cox said.
“Health care is a big topic statewide as the negotiating of health care benefits for school employees has moved to the state level,” Cox said. “It's no longer negotiated at the local level, and health care costs did go up 11%.”
The district’s transportation costs also increased 10% from the 2021 budget.
“We regularly have an increase in transportation costs,” Taylor said.“In terms of the contract with the bus company, that was actually increasing I believe over four or five years of a significant double-digit increase. For a long time, we had a very good contract with them, and now it’s finally kind of come home to roost. They’ve been having trouble hiring people and things, and so the transportation costs increased dramatically.”
Other expenditures that rose in the past year: workers compensation increased 2.25%, other insurance, like liability, automobile and property insurance prices grew 8% and electricity and waste disposal costs rose 5.25%.
New positions paid for by grants
The proposed budget includes two new positions using federal funding and grant money.
The board added a special educator with federal funds from The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. An additional special educator will reduce the student to special educator ratio from 97:1 to 85:1 at Colchester High School.
A Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Coordinator was also added with Medicaid funding. The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Coordinator will work to advance research, administer consultation, guidance and training, and aid in the evaluation of issues related to student diversity, climate, and culture.
“Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work ties directly to assessing schools’ social-emotional learning, and a positive climate for all in the schools, and it really truly is an exciting position,” Board Member Nic Longo said. “And I think the staff, including myself, are very excited to see this position come forward.”
How this budget impacts taxes
The budget, if approved, will impact taxpayers through the Homestead Property Tax Rate.
“The homestead property tax rate, the taxes you paid on the value of your permanent residence in Vermont, that tax contributes about 35% of the total cost of the state's public education,” Taylor said.
The Homestead Property Tax Rate for Colchester is expected to increase 4.192% in the 2022 fiscal year, according to Taylor. Last year, the tax rate was $1.58. This year, the tax rate is expected to be $1.64.
This means that for every $100k of a taxpayer’s property value, they will pay $1,640. This is a $198.63 increase from last year on a $300k home. These tax dollars, however, do not go straight to Colchester schools.
The education portion of Colchester resident’s taxes goes to the state rather than the town. The tax rate depends upon various statewide variables and is not officially released until the Vermont legislature passes the required legislation. This legislation may not be passed until late spring or summer, and that is why the tax rate can only be estimated at this time.
This year, discussions about the tax rate and budget were held remotely. Town Meeting Day will also look different as a result of social distancing.
“We typically like to have a town meeting, and the town meeting is not happening because of COVID, but voting day will happen,” Minor said.
Colchester has not had a budget struck down since 2014, but with the economic strain of the COVID-19 pandemic and the expected increase in mail-in ballots, anxiety remains over the prospects of approval.
“If we have to cut because the budget doesn't pass...we're not sure yet what we will cut, but it would certainly reduce the services we're providing,” Kieny said.