Although the proposed budget of $9,219,949 is lower than the current budget by $156,871, one town will see some property tax relief, while the other faces an increase, according to school officials. Residential property taxes in Whitingham will drop by 6.3 cents. In Wilmington’s case, however, residential property tax payers will face a 21.64-cent increase.
Windham Southwest Supervisory Union Business Manager Karen Atwood said that the tax changes were based on several factors. The change from the current joint school district funding in which each town pays based on its student population to a union district budget in which the costs are shared equally across the district is one reason. “You knew when you combined that things would balance out, and Wilmington was the one that was going to get the low end of the deal,” she told board members. Last year, in fact, Whitingham taxpayers experienced a similar double-digit tax increase.
But Atwood said a precipitous drop in Wilmington’s common level of appraisal was one of the biggest factors for that town’s large increase. “Wilmington’s CLA is down by 5.78,” she said. “If it was the same as last year, Wilmington’s tax increase would only be 9 cents.”
Atwood noted that a number of towns are facing substantial tax increases thanks to falling CLA numbers, “Readsboro is down 19.5,” she said.
Other factors include a substantial loss of $367,930 in non-tax revenue. The figure includes the loss of $218,000 in tuition revenue, an end-of-year fund balance that’s $102,000 lower than the previous year, and a cut in user fees.
The proposed budget is over the state-calculated per-pupil spending threshold by $359,000, resulting in a dollar-for-dollar penalty of another $359,000.
Board members discussed, and ultimately rejected, a number of possible budget cuts before approving the budget. Twin Valley principals Rebecca Fillion and Tom Fitzgerald both said that funding for Wings after-school programs was one of the few discretionary items that could be eliminated without cutting the educational program. If the Wings funding in both schools were eliminated, it would shave about $35,000 off the total budget. But both principals warned that eliminating the funding altogether would have a significant impact on students, parents, and the community. “It doesn’t just affect children, ultimately it’s the parents,” agreed board member Clare Watkin, “Some parents who are working at (Mount Snow) are reliant on their children being at school until 5 pm.”
Noting that every $1 spent over the state’s penalty threshold costs $2, board members discussed the possibility of moving funding to the municipal budgets. “Nobody here wants to cut Wings, but is it essential to the school?” asked board member John Doty. “It’s essential to the kids, but is it essential to the school? I think it’s a community expense that’s channeled through the school.”
Doty suggested a Town Meeting discussion in which voters could advise school board and selectboard members how they would prefer to pay for Wings programs. He noted that, even though paying for such expenses through municipal funding results in a substantial savings for taxpayers, selectboard members are often reticent to include the funding in their budgets. “I’m fine with keeping it in the (school) budget, but there needs to be a conversation about what the value is to the community, and where should it come from. If the community wants to channel it through the school budget, that’s fine.”
But even with cuts in supplies and other discretionary items identified by administrators, the total reduction under discussion would reduce the tax rate by less than two cents. Board members dropped the discussion to move on to their vote, but board member Dennis Richter objected. “Something’s got to be done and, unfortunately, it’s got to be done here. It’s just not right.”
Richter called on administrators to be at Town Meeting to defend the budget, but administrators said Town Meeting day, when voters would vote on the budget by Australian ballot, was too late for discussion. Board member Kathy Larsen said the time for discussion was at the Twin Valley Unified Union School District annual meeting and informational meeting on Tuesday, February 27, at 7 pm in the Twin Valley Elementary School gymnasium.
“Unfortunately, we don’t get a lot of turnout for those meetings,” objected Richter. “I think people are going to want to have their conversation at Town Meeting.”
The board voted to move forward with the proposed budget, with Richter opposed.
Doty said he supported the budget and maintaining the educational programs because losing them would adversely affect students and the community.
“We know our student body has increasing needs, and they only have one chance to go through this institution,” he said. “We owe it to them to give the best education we can. One reason we want to preserve what we have in place is we know the long-term effects of not addressing their needs is going to be deleterious to the community. We have to look at this as an investment, not a cost.”