NORTH CLARENDON — Taxpayers in the Mill River Unified Union School District will be looking at a nearly level-funded budget this Town Meeting Day.
Last week, the district School Board, which serves the towns of Clarendon, Shrewsbury, Wallingford and Tinmouth, unanimously approved an $18,896,395 expenditure budget for fiscal year 2022 — up 0.17% from the current fiscal year.
Education spending per equalized pupil is set a $17,570.62, or 0.82%, which puts it almost on par with forecasted state average of $17,612.
“This is a very sound and responsible level budget,” Finance Chair Liz Filskov told the board at its regular meeting on Jan. 6, which was streamed live on YouTube.
The increase of less than a quarter of a percent is the result of cost-saving measures taken by the district administrators and the board, according to Superintendent David Younce.
“We started with a target of, ‘We need to look at a level-funded budget.’ So zero was the target,” Younce said in an interview last week.
The district was able to realize $65,000 in administrative cost reductions, as well as reductions in bus lease costs, curriculum work costs, professional development and instructional supplies, and a reallocation of funds in the athletic budget.
The budget also puts off the planned addition of several new positions and eliminates one current position.
“The first place we needed to look in terms of finding some reductions on the staffing side would be in the administrative realm,” Younce said.
He noted that, even though the district’s administrative ranks are relatively lean, it was preferable to cut from there so that “we would not need to touch staff positions and student activities, because we want to leave that as definitely a last resort.”
The budget also benefits from a larger-than-normal allocation of surplus monies.
“We’ve always done a good job of generating a good surplus. We are very conservative with the dollars that are allocated to us,” Younce said.
Historically, the district has applied $600,000 in surplus funds to budgets to keep tax rates down. This year, it was able to apply $700,000 due to savings realized through COVID closures and positions that went unfilled.
“When we shut down (in March) … our expenses slowed down considerably from what they normally are,” said district Business Manager Stan Pawlaczyk last week. “We were pretty well set up technology-wise, where we didn’t have to spend extra funds to go remote.”
Like most school districts in Vermont, student enrollment remains a looming concern.
In the past year, student enrollment in MRUUSD dropped by 10%. Younce attributed part of that dip to families opting for homeschooling or transferring out of the district due to its pandemic reopening plans, which kept students learning remotely until November and still has a number of students on a hybrid plan.
Younce acknowledged that another factor likely was families who left the district over their disapproval of the School Board’s efforts to display Black Lives Matter and Pride flags last year.
This fall, in response to an anticipated drop in enrollment due to COVID, the Legislature froze average daily membership numbers (ADMs), — a metric used to calculate equalized per pupil spending — at last year’s levels in order to provide districts with a measure of budgetary stability.
“It’s a point of vulnerability — and not just for us, but everywhere,” Younce said, adding that he “conservatively” assumes that 5% to 6% will return in the fall if the pandemic improves.
Younce noted that “wise use” of surplus monies helps insulate against fluctuations in enrollment numbers.
Another fluctuation of note is the tax rate. The estimated tax rate prior to application of the common level of appraisal, or CLA, is $1.63 per $100 of property value — up about 2 cents, or 1.34%, from fiscal year 2021.
The CLA is a metric based on property value, which the state uses to equalize education property taxes from town to town. The CLA is projected to be lower than the current fiscal year for all district towns except for Tinmouth. A lower CLA means a higher tax rate.
In Clarendon, the estimated tax rate after applying the CLA is $1.65, up 5 cents. In Shrewsbury, the tax rate is projected to be $1.65, up nearly 8 cents. Wallingford, is looking at an estimated tax rate of $1.64, up 7 cents. In Tinmouth, the tax rate is projected to be $1.66, up just 2 cents.
“This is something over which we, as a board, have no control,” Filskov said during the meeting, adding the Vermont School Boards Association “supports an examination of the CLA and urges (residents) to contact the governor and the General Assembly and ask that they evaluate its mechanics and impacts on small towns.”
Considering the fate of the budget this year, Younce raised concerns that anger over district policies, such as its remote-learning plan or flag-raising efforts, might prompt some residents to vote down the budget in protest.
“One of the challenges I think we will face is, if our budget is voted down — again, it’s essentially a level-funded budget with (education) spending per pupil going down — if that budget is voted down, then what?” he asked, explaining that any further reductions would be in staff positions, which would impact programming and, ultimately, students.
“Our hope is, if folks decide to vote our budget down just as a sending of a message that that message would be heard, but then the (current) budget that our board has prepared very responsibly would be viewed as such the next time that we had to vote on it and that things would pass through,” the superintendent said.
A virtual annual meeting is scheduled for Feb. 25, where voters will get a chance to learn more about the budget. Younce said he anticipates that because of COVID all articles will be voted on by Australian ballot on Town Meeting Day on March 2. He noted that those details are being finalized.