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Brattleboro Finance Committee Says School Budget Unaffordable    
Saturday, February 02 2013 @ 02:09 PM GMT+4
Contributed by: cgrotke

EducationThe Brattleboro Town Finance Committee has come out with a report that says we’re spending too much on schools in Brattleboro, and this “confluence of taxes and fee increases will make Brattleboro an unaffordable town to live in and do business in.” They recommend the school budget be reduced by Representative Town Meeting.

The full report and reasoning is below. (Emphasis was added by the committee.)

.......

Brattleboro Town Finance Committee
Synopsis of Proposed FY2014 BUHS District #6 Budget

For the ANNUAL MEETING of BRATTLEBORO UNION HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT #6
February 12, 2013, 7pm, BUHS Gymnasium

For Brattleboro voters: While we recognize that the BUHS district has taken good steps to contain costs in a difficult budget year, we point out the following:

1. The Brattleboro portion of the proposed BUHS D#6 budget would be about 34% of total Brattleboro property taxes.

2. The proposed BUHS budget is increasing 1.32%.

3. The actual tax rate increase required to offset Brattleboro’s portion is estimated to be about 3.5 cents.

This will be in addition to a similar tax increase for the Brattleboro Town School District. Both of these will be added to the municipal tax increase.

4. Enrollment is declining.

5. By one measure (education spending per equalized pupil) BUHS D#6 had the highest cost of all VT union high school districts for 4 of the last 5 years.

6. Brattleboro's Grand List is not growing.

7. Except for the possibility of middle school students from Guilford, there are no new sources of revenue on the horizon.

8. Payments on Brattleboro's waste water treatment plant bonds have recently begun. Interest payments on its police/fire facilities begin next year (FY2014) and principal payments the year after. Going forward there will be continuing 7% scheduled increases in water/sewer rates and a 10 cent increase for police/fire in the municipal portion of taxes.

In the context of the Town of Brattleboro's overall picture, we strongly recommend a level funded budget.

The Town Finance Committee, an adjunct of Representative Town Meeting, appreciates and is grateful for the opportunity to serve our community.

Michael Bosworth (Vice Chair)
Bob Rottenberg (on leave)
Tim Cuthbertson
Kathryn Turnas II
Lisa (Lorimer) Donahue
John Wilmerding
Spoon Agave (Chair)

Brattleboro Union High School District #6

A. Quick overview of the district

Brattleboro Union High School District 6 (BUHS D#6) is a regional school district that also includes the towns of Dummerston, Guilford, Putney and Vernon. It oversees the Brattleboro Area Middle School (BAMS - 7th and 8th grades), Brattleboro Union High School (BUHS - grades 9-12) and the Windham Regional Career Center (WRCC). It falls within the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.

B. The BUHS D#6 budget within a state-wide context

It is a very tough year to control school budgets, a primary reason being the increase in health care costs. The projected 14% increase for health coverage translates into an additional $186,182 in expenses for BUHS D#6. Also, there may be a large increase in the state's education property tax rate but a comparatively smaller increase in the state's base spending amount per pupil. If so, the combination of those factors will translate into higher property tax rates for Brattleboro.

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) predicts that school budget expenditures throughout the state will rise an average of 4.8% this coming year. The proposed BUHS D#6 increase of 1.32% is well below this. However, this does not change the fact that the local tax base is flat and even modest increases like this are not sustainable.

The school board and supervisory union personnel negotiated modest increases in the bargaining unit agreements with faculty and staff. For BUHS D#6 the increase for FY2014 is only 0.55% because of the early retirement program of the last several years as well as attrition and some reductions. Compare this to the predicted 2.5% average rise in salaries throughout the state. (Source: VLCT)

As in the past several years, there is an early retirement plan out for this year, with a limit of ten certified staff. The schools are still seeing savings from the retirements of senior faculty during the last several years. They were replaced by younger teachers who are at lower pay scales and yet have enough experience to be good teachers.

Special education expenses are actually dropping, not rising, for BUHS D#6. This is compared to an expected 7% average rise in special education costs throughout the state. (Source: VLCT) The school system decided to put more resources into this function, and special ed students formerly studying outside the district came back into the district. This resulted in the overall decrease, an initiative which thus saved money while also offering a better education in-house for this population. Special education programs are overseen by the Supervisory Union as well as the administration of the schools.

Much of the evidence above points out that BUHS D#6 has been very careful about expenditures and has found creative ways to save money in an educationally balanced way. The Finance Committee has studied this closely for the last two years and notes that this continues to be the case.

Over the years, however, BUHS D#6 became among the very highest cost public secondary school systems in the state. On the basis of one measure -- education spending per equalized pupil -- BUHS D#6 had the highest costs of any of Vermont's 28 union high school districts for 4 out of the last 5 years. On another measure, budget per equalized pupil, BUHS D#6 has been 4th, 5th and 2nd out of that pool of union high school districts during the last 5 years. (Source: VT DOE)

Public school enrollments throughout the state are declining, down 0.7% this year and projected to go down by 6% by 2018. (Source: VLCT) The drop in Brattleboro equalized pupils for grades 7 through 12 for BUHS D#6 from FY09 to FY14 is expected to be a steep 13.8%. (Another enrollment measure is headcount, but available on-line records end in FY2011. They show a decrease of 12.4% from FY2004 to FY2011.) (Source: VT DOE)

C. Other district factors

The BUHS D#6 school board is proposing a 1.32% higher budget in FY2014. This figure is attained after a proposed transfer of $1,150,000 from the BUHS reserve fund. Of this transfer amount $150,000 is proposed as a set aside for year one of a dedicated fund to cover maintenance needs.

The budget and this use of reserves will be voted on at the BUHS D#6 annual meeting on February 12, 2013. While Brattleboro Town Meeting members have no special status at that meeting, they and all voters in Brattleboro are urged to attend because of its importance. Depending on state education rate setting decisions, this budget might translate into an additional 3 1/2 cents on the tax rate.

Future BUHS D#6 revenues and expenses will be affected by an upcoming decision by the Town of Guilford on whether to send its middle school students to BAMS. If Guilford decides to do so,the anticipated revenue to BUHS D#6 will be in excess of $200,000 against which additional expenses would be minimal. This group of students number approximately 21. The decision on this matter might be made by Guilford this winter/spring but will not be made in time to affect BTSD's proposed FY2014 budget.

D. Long-term debt

Part of the BUHS D#6 budget of course is used to pay off long term debt. The remaining principal on the BUHS renovation bond at the end of FY2013 will be $17,600,000. Another 11 years of debt service (principal and interest) payments of around $2,000,000 per year remain on this bond. Brattleboro, which makes up approximately two-thirds of the school population, is responsible for two-thirds of that debt. The track replacement note has another 3 years to go after FY2013 with debt service payments of more than $90,000 per year. The older equipment lease debt will be retired by the end of FY2013.

BUHS D#6 has a capital budget stretching out 5 years, too short a timeframe to be as useful as it should be for longer-term financial/budgetary planning.

If they are not already aware, voters in town and the Selectboard should become knowledgeable of the BUHS D#6 bond savings that are occurring through the Bond Bank refinancing arranged in late 2011. These savings are reflected in a just a few of the remaining 11 years on the bond, but FY2014 will see a refund check of $43,842 and FY2015 will see a substantially larger reduction of $800,000. In the latter case the savings will arrive through a reduction in the expected payment that year, not through a refund check.

Because Brattleboro students make up about two-thirds of the BUHS student population, then in one sense about $533,333 of the substantial one-time reduction in FY2015 "belongs to" the people of Brattleboro and its fate should be decided by them. In practice any decision on this total $800,000 amount will be made at the BUHS D#6 annual meeting in February of 2014. Should all of that money be used to reduce the BUHS D#6 budget in one year or spread over 3 years? The Finance Committee is concerned that future budgets be controlled in a careful way and that the use of such "windfall" funds do not serve to mask rises in the underlying budget.

E. Conclusions

The public education system means a great deal to the parents of students in the system, and having a good system in Brattleboro should be of high priority to the Town for economic development reasons as well as quality of life. The Finance Committee believes, however, that the schools need to live within the means of the Town. Growth in property values in Town has been negligible for several years and, absent new sources of revenue, any growth in budgets is not sustainable in an already very high tax community. For this reason the Finance Committee feels that even the 1.32% rise in the BUHS D#6 budget is too high. Voters need to be aware that we have the highest cost union high school district in the state.

The Finance Committee has tremendous respect for the administration and boards of the schools. We are convinced that they are focused on doing their jobs, ensuring an excellent education for the students of our town. With the exception in our minds of some high school sports-related capital items of recent years, lately the increases in the budgets have not been extravagant. The district has found creative ways to save money such as their early retirement incentive program.

Without new sources of revenue, however -- and (with the possible exception of the Guilford middle school students) it doesn't look like there are any major ones on the horizon for the schools -- in our opinion even a modest budgetary increase like the one proposed is not affordable. When combined with the direction the state is setting for the base homestead tax rate and the base spending amount per pupil, the proposed budgets are even more problematic. More importantly, when combined with other big ticket items the Town has needed to take on -- the waste water treatment plant, the police/fire station upgrades -- a confluence of taxes and fee increases will make Brattleboro an unaffordable town to live in and do business in.

It is not the Finance Committee's role to specify where the school board might cut if the voters ask them to do so. All the choices are tough ones. Can the school make do with fewer teachers or paraprofessionals, especially if long term trends indicate fewer students? Should extracurricular activities be fewer in number? Can we get along with fewer school-owned properties? And how can all this happen while maintaining a system that parents have confidence in and that ensures the future economic prosperity of the Town?

It is tough to confront choices of "fewer" or "fewer" or "fewer," however it looks like that is the world we now live in. If, as opposed to recent trends, the Town begins to experience healthy economic growth like it has in some past years, the Finance Committee would be happy to be wrong. For now, however, the logic and need for level or even reduced budgets are clear and compelling. We seriously question whether we can afford to have the highest cost union high school district in the state, and even more so in this period of declining enrollments.

Source: vermont.education.gov web site plus SD budget working documents. Note: Figures are for the union district, about 2/3 of which students are from Brattleboro. While based on a straight student count, the formula for “equalized pupils” gives less weight to pre-kindergarten pupils and extra weight to students in secondary school, those from economically deprived backgrounds, and those whose first language is not English.

*Please note: Property taxes cover most but not all of each budget. Other revenue includes the use of reserves and, on the schools side, state and federal special education money. Additionally, there are grants plus a wide array of minor income sources, such as fees and licenses.

**The increases in the tax rates are estimates and will not be finalized until later this winter and spring. Note: The police/fire station upgrades will have a more significant impact on the Municipal budget in FY2015, the first year when both principal and interest is due.

Note: The BUHS bond was refinanced within the last couple of years and there will be a one year reduction of $800,000 in FY2015. The use for those savings will get decided at the February, 2014 BUHS annual meeting.

Note: Two-thirds of Brattleboro homeowners receive some kind of property tax adjustment through Vermont's income sensitivity program and another 580 households receive renter rebates.

 

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  • Brattleboro Finance Committee Says School Budget Unaffordable | 9 comments | Create New Account
    The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they may say.
    Brattleboro Finance Committee Says School Budget Unaffordable
    Authored by: pleasant on Saturday, February 02 2013 @ 03:00 PM GMT+4
    The BUHS budget needs to be an Australian ballot in the member towns. It can no longer be voted on at a meeting that only supporters of the budget attend.

    We need to be sure we keep the special educators and the programs that keep kids in school, but what about some of the extra jobs and classes?

    Does a school with declining enrollment need 3 principals and a dean of students? Until 1993 there was one principal and a vice-principal and over 1100 students.

    And while I am at it, can I just say, no student should be able to graduate in 3-3 1/2 years. If you are done with BUHS's required courses, you need to explore the dual enrollment.
    Brattleboro Finance Committee Says School Budget Unaffordable
    Authored by: SpudHill on Sunday, February 03 2013 @ 11:33 AM GMT+4
    "1. The Brattleboro portion of the proposed BUHS D#6 budget would be about 34% of total Brattleboro property taxes."
    This is a little misleading as one could read it as referring to the education portion of the town tax. In reality the education portion is extremely large, this only reflects the BUHS portion while according to my recollection taxes reflect aound 60% payment on the education portion of individual tax bills. Can't remember, didn't have time to look at the charts, but as I remember it's very very high.

    Vermont at present ranks fifth in the country on spending per pupil behind New York, Wash, DC, New Jersey and Alaska. Which means that Brattleboro expenditures for education are among the highest in the country. I agree that this isn't sustainable.

    I also agree that a multitude of principals seems extravagant. Personally I'd like to see some belt tightening across the board in this town re taxes but am not convinced it will happen. The police station expenditure seems excessive and the school taxes for such a small town are an unusually large portion of overall residential taxes.

    I'm certainly supportive of good schools but I'm really doubtful that some things couldn't be tightened up a bit.
    Brattleboro Finance Committee Says School Budget Unaffordable
    Authored by: spoon on Sunday, February 03 2013 @ 03:02 PM GMT+4
    It appears that we could have had more clarity. We
    indicate in several places that the BUHS budget is just one
    of three that are covered by property taxes. There is also
    the Town schools budget and the municipal budget. They
    all get added together. In total they combine for
    something over $49 million dollars. The minicipal part of
    that, in strictly dollars, is only about 30%, the combined
    education dollars about 70%. The allocation of tax money
    isn't quite so disparate, more like about 65 or 66% of
    property taxes are for schools. The difference is due to
    the fact that the schools get a certain amount of funding
    directly from state and federal sources.

    The thrust of the report is to help create an awareness
    of the realities of our tax burden and provide information
    to help understand them. It is assumed that this
    information will be helpful for those who show up to make
    decisions.

    ---
    spoon agave
    Brattleboro Finance Committee Says School Budget Unaffordable
    Authored by: SpudHill on Sunday, February 03 2013 @ 03:14 PM GMT+4
    Thanks Spoon for the update. I wonder how 60+% compares to similar sized towns across the country. As I said if Brattleboro is No. 1 in Vermont in spending and Vermont is number 5 in the country then we're certainly paying out some awfully big bucks. Granted it's a good school system but it would still be a good school system with a little belt tightening. I think while supporting schools is the way to go, there is also a breaking point where it becomes way too expensive for taxpayers. This seems like a huge chunk of our tax bill. Also I think we desperately need a silent written (Australian) vote on those school budget issues.

    It's crazy to have a situation where parents have to go into a gym and raise their hands yes or no with their kids teachers and administrators sitting there. It's unfair, and it certainly guarantees a yes vote. This is not about whether teachers are going to penalize kids which they won't but it's a guarantee that mostly those who would vote yes anyway are going to show up. It skews the results.
    Brattleboro Finance Committee Says School Budget Unaffordable
    Authored by: Rolf on Sunday, February 03 2013 @ 02:22 PM GMT+4

    I recently talked with a police officer about the police
    station upgrades.

    He felt aside from the needed renovations for the
    stairs, it was not in his opinion needed.

    All of these budget items are of course interrelated.
    There is a maximal amount that property taxes can
    be raised, and every cost detracts from the
    resources available for other important needs.

    I am not sure that having less principals is the way to
    go. Managing any one school seems to me like an
    enormous job. One of the things I love about Oak
    Grove for example, is how much one administrator
    can do when focusing full time attention on one
    school. I fear collapsing all schools into one
    administration would result in decreased attention
    and decreased excellence. Sometimes financial
    efficiency comes at the cost of delivering excellent
    results efficiently.

    I do not have any perfect solution, only concerns,
    which I have not voiced anywhere close to voicing
    perfectly. But I do wish some of the police station /
    fire station upgrades could be scraped.





    ---
    Dreams Trump Video
    Brattleboro Finance Committee Says School Budget Unaffordable
    Authored by: pleasant on Monday, February 04 2013 @ 02:03 PM GMT+4
    I agree that 1/principal per building is necessary, especially having been a student at Green Street and Walnut St school (the top floor of St. Mike's until the late 90s) when Bob Neubauer had to spit his time between the buildings. I am glad all the elementary schools are one building schools now (when I was growing up Canal and Oak Grove were joined as well).

    I do not understand why the high school needs a head principal, two "house" principals and a dean of students (plus a million secretaries that we all know are really the ones running the show).
    School Budget Biff
    Authored by: spinoza on Monday, February 04 2013 @ 02:40 PM GMT+4
    When you look closely at what we're buying with those heavy
    tax dollars, you see we're paying ransom on a hostage
    situation with a Russian Nesting Doll:

    The feds and state hold the districts hostage with the harsh
    demands of Race to the Top; the district holds the town
    hostage with ever higher costs due to performance pressures
    and mandated special services; the town sends students
    through a system that does not serve them well (one in five
    drop out), and underlying it all there are fewer opportunities
    as college costs rise and the economy shrivels…

    In this scenario, cuts often become abstract and austerity
    begets more dysfunction.

    Case in point: next year the town elementary schools are
    cutting tech support. There will be no computer integration
    assistance for teachers or students. Despite the governors
    call for increased technical fluency to meet the need of the
    21st century, that position has been "tightened".
    School Budget Biff
    Authored by: cgrotke on Monday, February 04 2013 @ 04:16 PM GMT+4
    Cutting tech education/support in favor of testing specialists
    doesn't seem smart from an education point of view, but
    from a "we must pass the test" point of view, it would
    appear essential.

    I wish all school districts would stop worrying about national
    standards. I want a generation that can really think and not
    just fill in ovals effectively. Ah, but I'm weird and out of
    touch.
    Fill in the Blank
    Authored by: spinoza on Wednesday, February 06 2013 @ 07:29 PM GMT+4
    Some teachers in other places have risen-up against the test.
    Here's a report about "A Day of Action" against
    Standardization.

    http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2013/02/06-6

    What might be worse than an embrace of the test is a numb
    acquiescence to it. The shame is that so many work hard to
    make education valuable, but if the model is flawed won't the
    results also be part of the failure?