BENNINGTON -- The Bennington School District's board of directors voted unanimously on Monday to approve a new budget, which they hope to put before voters early next month.
The new budget cuts $37,502 from the budget residents voted down in March. In total, the total effect on the tax rate caused by the BSD has decreased from 1.13 cents to approximately half of a cent. Based on the most recent numbers provided by Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union CFO Rick Pembroke, the total effect of the schools (including the SVSU and Mount Anthony Union school district) on the Bennington tax rate has decreased from 13.55 cents in March to 8.75 cents. Much of that decrease came from the state, which had overestimated the amount of education taxes that needed to be collected on the state level.
A tax increase of 8.75 cents means that for every $100 in property value, the property owner will pay 8.75 cents more than last year. Someone with a $200,000 residence, for example, would pay an additional $175 in education taxes than last year. If the budget in March had passed, and state tax projections had remained the same, they would have paid about $271 extra.
The $37,000 that BSD voted to cut from includes $20,214 in savings from renegotiating the SVSU's contract with the school bus company, $1,034 in savings on dental insurance for employees, a $1,250 decrease in budgeted allowances for postage, a $3,000 decrease in the elementary schools' kitchen maintenance budgets, and $12,000 from eliminating funding for the Four Winds and Girls on the Run programs.
Pembroke informed the school board that any additional cuts to their budget, which increased 2.34 percent overall and 1.34 percent per student from FY14, would not have much of an effect on the tax rate. "For every $10,000 you cut in ed. spending, you gain half of a hundreth of a cent," he told the board, "If you want to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars, you're going to be cutting staff. I'll let the principals talk [on that topic], but that's going to have an effect on class sizes."
Pembroke also mentioned that he had seen updated enrollment projections for kindergarten that suggested that the recent enrollment bubble wasn't about to burst, with about 170 students entering kindergarten in Bennington each of the next two years, before enrollment rates project to drop back down to their historical averages, about 140 students per year. With these numbers in mind, Pembroke advised the board that cutting staff could further exacerbate the problem of having too many students per class in the early grade levels.
Pembroke suggested the board move quickly to put this budget before voters. "My recommendation is still to schedule a vote for May 6," said Pembroke, who noted that, should that budget fail, "We can keep putting out a budget to vote every week, but if we don't have a budget by July 1, we can only operate at 87 percent of [our FY13] budget." That would represent a decrease in $1.7 million. "No matter how you do the math, that will equal a lot of staff, a lot of [paraeducators]."
Board member Jackie Kennedy suggested that perhaps a community organization would be interested in funding the Girls on the Run program, which has about 60 members between the three schools in the BSD. Superintendent Catherine McClure agreed to reach out to gauge interest in the community.
Pembroke pointed out that, compared to state averages, BSD actually spends less than most of the state per student. "The argument could be made that you're not spending enough per kid, and some have," said Pembroke, "Someone moving from Bennington to anywhere else in the state would likely pay more taxes." Although he said he hadn't run the exact figures yet, Pembroke said that he'd be willing to bet that BSD would end up among the bottom 10 percent of Vermont school districts in terms of spending per equalized pupil.
Pembroke expressed frustration at the amount of disinformation in the community about the BSD budget. "The problem is, when one person is out there miscommunicating, it becomes like that game you play at birthdays," he said, referencing telephone, the game in which one person whispers a phrase, and the phrase continues down a line of people until it has become entirely unrecognizable. "Suddenly instead of ‘The color is green,'" he said, "you have, ‘We're going to Alaska!"
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB