Voters grapple with school budgets and property tax rates

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(Host) Many communities across the state will be voting on their school budgets on Town Meeting Day. These budgets, on average, are increasing at a rate of six and a half percent this year. Governor Jim Douglas says this rate isn’t sustainable and he’s urging voters to scrutinize their local budgets. Many local officials welcome that scrutiny because they feel most of the factors driving up costs are largely out of their control.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) When lawmakers passed Act 68 two years ago, they hoped the new law would provide significant property tax relief for many Vermonters. But school costs have continued to increase faster than projections and the relief to many taxpayers may be short lived. According to the Department of Education, school budgets this year are increasing about
6.5 percent. Last year, spending increased by about the same amount.

Governor Jim Douglas is very concerned:

(Douglas) “But I really believe that 6.5 percent increase is not sustainable at a time of declining enrollments and the need for families, employers of all kinds to tighten their belts and live within their means. So I really think it’s important to scrutinize those budgets and ask some tough questions.”

(Kinzel) A number of local school officials think that kind of scrutiny would clearly demonstrate the dilemma they face. They say they have little control over many of the largest cost drivers in their budgets, for instance:

  • Special education costs are up almost 10 percent
  • Health costs are up 12 percent
  • Salaries are up around 4 percent
  • Federal grant programs have been cut or eliminated and the new federal No Child Left Behind law has mandated additional local costs.

    Brian O’Regan is the superintendent of the Chittenden South District:

    (O’Regan) “I think the schools and the school boards are doing everything possible to keep their costs down. And I think we’re challenging because of both the federal and state mandates as well as a belief from a local community level that this is the quality of school system that we want to have in place, regardless of what community that is.”

    (Kinzel) Another problem is that many school districts are facing a declining enrollment base. On average, Vermont’s student population is decreasing by roughly 1.5 percent a year.

    John Everitt is the Superintendent in Montpelier. Everitt says he can eliminate classroom teachers when there’s a sizeable decline in enrollment but he says there are some significant costs that aren’t affected by a drop in the number of students:

    (Everitt) “It becomes much more difficult with the overhead. It’s the foreign language, programs with the nurse, the librarian – where as the enrollment drops you still have a full time nurse and a building. The building needs to stay warm and needs to stay open no matter how small the enrollment gets.”

    (Kinzel) The overall drop in enrollment means that while state spending is increasing by 6.5 percent per pupil, expenditures are actually going up by almost eight percent. This is important because a town’s local education tax rate is based on the per pupil rate.

    Here’s how it works: the state pays towns roughly $7,000 for each student. If a community actually spends $7,700 per student, which is $700 dollars or 10 percent above the basic state grant, then its total school tax rate will be 10 percent higher than the statewide property tax rate.

    Steve Jeffrey is the executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns:

    (Jeffrey) “It is the residential tax rate which goes up and down based on the spending, and it’s based on spending per pupil. So it does affect directly the residential tax rates.”

    (Kinzel) Towns are also struggling with a provision known as the Common Level of Appraisal. Because individual towns conduct reappraisals at different times, a mechanism is needed to make certain that all towns are taxed on an equal basis.

    Because property values are increasing by more then 10 percent a year, the CLA boosts the local tax rate to reflect this growth in the grand list. This provision is creating problems for local school officials because the CLA by itself in many communities will increase school tax rates by more than 10 percent, so that it could take a 12 percent increase in taxes to support a local school budget that’s growing by only two percent.

    Local and state officials will be closely watching the results school budgets votes to help determine if a new taxpayer revolt is in the making.

    For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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