by Nat Frothingham
The newly formed Montpelier-Roxbury School Board is asking voters in Montpelier and Roxbury on March 6 to approve a joint school budget of $23,452,706 for FY 2018–2019.
Comparing School and City Budget Requests
Now, this is not new. But still it’s worth considering. As in previous years, a Montpelier property taxpayer is making a far greater effort to support the schools than that taxpayer is making to support the municipal part of the overall City of Montpelier budget.
The basic budget request from the schools is for $23.4 million. And the basic budget request from the City of Montpelier for municipal services is $9,025.174. And remember we’re not talking about add-ons such as bonds, borrowing, special appropriations that are also part of the City Meeting ballot – just the basic school and city budget requests.
Roughly 72 percent of Montpelier’s property tax burden supports the schools. And something like 28 percent of the property tax burden supports municipal services.
Factors Influencing the School Budget Request
In general, most local taxpayers like to hold down tax-supported school spending. Now that Montpelier and Roxbury have merged to create a unified school district, we are beginning to see rising student numbers in Montpelier schools. This situation is quite unlike what’s happening to most other school districts across the state. And because of rising student numbers we might see an increase in state aid and a moderate decrease in school spending over time.
It can be argued that increasing student numbers typically spreads out the cost of education over more taxpayers. This in turn can lessen the property tax burden. When schools are full, school buildings are in use, and teachers hold onto their jobs. This can stabilize the local economy. But remember we are only in the first year of the Montpelier-Roxbury unified district and there are many factors at play and some of these factors may change.
In FY 2016–2017 (last year) Montpelier school students numbers were 1,053. In FY 2016–2018 (this year) school number rose to 1,094. And student numbers are project to exceed 1,100 in FY 2018–2019 (next year).
The Montpelier-Roxbury merger will continue the rise in student numbers. According to Montpelier School Superintendent Brian Ricca, the Roxbury Village School is currently a K–6 school. But next year it will drop back to a K–4 school. And grades 5,6,7 and 8 will attend Montpelier schools.
School financing is a devilishly intricate subject. But because the Montpelier Roxbury District is gaining students the district—following the admonishments of Gov. Scott —is not advised to raise its per pupil spending by more than 2.5 percent.
“We came in at 1.3 percent,” said Supt. Ricca who was pleased with this result.
The good news is that because of its merger with Roxbury, the new, unified Montpelier Roxbury District is being rewarded by the state with what’s called “a state incentive.” Or as Ricca said, “We have an eight-cent merger incentive.”
Here’s more positive news for the unified district because of its higher student numbers. The number of equalized pupils is up. There are more students reporting eligibility for free and reduced lunch. There are also greater numbers of students who are (non-native) speakers and who qualify for English language instruction. All of these changes qualify the new district for greater State of Vermont financial support. And this translates into a drop in the local property tax burden.
On the negative side, these developments are leading to a higher local property tax burden.
- Healthcare insurance rates for school personnel are going to rise next year by 10.1 percent.
- A measure called “the property yield” used by the State of Vermont to calculate the equalized tax rate for Montpelier, decreased by three percent. Ricca explained this decrease as the State’s decision to plug a hole in the Education Fund. So the property yield decrease meant more money for the State to balance its books and less money for local schools.
- Here’s another change that will add to the local educational property tax burden. It turns out that people are buying houses in Montpelier for more than their assessed value. If you own a house in Montpelier, that’s good, because your house is holding its value and will be worth more when you decide to sell it. But wait a minute, because property values in Montpelier are rising in comparison to property values in other parts of the state, your educational property tax bill will show an increase. Take your pick. You could see what’s happening as a positive or a negative.
Proposed $4.9 Million School Bond for Capital Improvements
The School District is proposing a $4.9 million bond to pay for a range of Union Elementary School and Montpelier High School renovations and capital improvements.
When Supt. Ricca was asked why these projects had been allowed to accumulate and not addressed each year as part of a rational spending and maintenance plan, he answered, “In the past it was the practice to do these things with band-aids.” But now the Montpelier School System is developing a Capital Plan with regular investments in facility upkeep and related changes, year by year.”
“In the next budget, we have set aside $250,000 on capital improvement projects,” he said. Because of School District plans to create a year-by-year capital plan with regular investments in building upkeep and related changes, Ricca predicted, “This will be the last bond I am sending to the voters for a long time.”
From a list of 11 capital improvement projects that are part of the $4.9 million proposed bond —these four were the most expensive:
- Union Elementary School playground redevelopment: ($1,170,000).
- Montpelier High School auditorium renovations ($740,000)
- Montpelier High School locker room upgrades plus offices and a family restroom ($600,000)
- Union Elementary School electric power distribution, fire alarm and PA system ($540,000).
In discussing the scope and cost of the Union Elementary playground redevelopment project, school principal Chris Hennessey said that at the outset he and others imagined a pretty modest playground upgrade. “We started with $100,000,” he said.
Then as the project was examined in greater depth what became clear was two things. First, the playground, like the school, was situated in a geographical bowl and suffering lots of erosion. “It’s like a muddy waterfall,” Hennessey said.
When the soil was examined, and it was examined closely, partly through a grant from the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission it was discovered that at certain depths greater than two feet, the soil was contaminated.
In May and September of 2017 several soil samples collected from the Montpelier Union Elementary School (MUES), to support a playground redesign project, were determined to have concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) greater than VTDEC soil standards. PAHs are a group of chemicals that are formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gas, wood, garbage, or other organic substances. The source of PAH contamination at MUES is likely due to several sources, such as fill dirt, historic fires, combustion of fossil fuels and surrounding property uses.
At the same time, the playground is not just a school playground. “This is a community playground,” Hennessey emphasized again and again. It’s a resource for kids, families, and the whole community. It had to be addressed at once and comprehensively. “This has to get done,” Hennessey insisted.
If the bond passes, the shovels and excavation work on the playground will begin this July and the playground will be shut down from September to June. “In the past it was delayed because it was a complex project. This is so essential that this happens,” Hennessey said.
Supt. Ricca said that the proposed school budget together with the $4.9 million bond would mean that someone in Montpelier with a house, valued at $228,000 would see a school tax increase for FY 2018—2019 of $98 over last years budget, essentially a rise of $25 per quarter.