BENNINGTON -- Residents of Bennington on Tuesday will vote on the Bennington School District budget for the second time this year, after the first attempt was defeated by just 39 votes.
The vote will take place on Tuesday, May 6 at the Bennington Fire House on River Street. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The day before, on Monday, May 5, at 6:30 p.m., at the Fire House, there will be an informational meeting on the proposed budget.
The budget as it is currently proposed represents a 2.3 percent increase over the present budget. The average increase in education spending across the state is three percent. "This is a very responsible budget," said Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union CFO Rick Pembroke. "The school board worked hard to keep the tax rates as low as possible."
Most of the increase, said Pembroke, comes from previously negotiated yearly salary increases for teachers and other staff. In addition, he said, the amount BSD spends on employee healthcare has increased by 6 percent in this budget. Much of this increase can be attributed to people who used to have plans elsewhere, before re-organization prompted by the Affordable Care Act, who now get their health insurance through the schools.
The local school boards don't have a lot of control over those numbers, said Pembroke, unless they are willing to risk another teachers' strike, like the one that occurred in the fall of 2011. That strike ended up costing the supervisory union $138,000 in legal fees and other expenses.
"If the people of the town want the board to [cut teacher salaries], they'd better be ready to stand behind them and support the board when the teachers strike," said Pembroke.
He added, "I believe, locally, we have controlled spending. Look at our statistics compared to the state. We can prove it."
According to Pembroke, the district's spending per equalized pupil is in the bottom 10 percent in the state, at $11,945. The state average is around $14,000. Additionally, said Pembroke, the student-teacher ratio in the Bennington Schools is 17.9 to one, compared to 9.4 to one in Vermont and 16 to one nationally.
"Education spending per equalized pupil is up less than 1.5 percent," wrote Pembroke in a draft of a column submitted to the Banner, "This represents very modest increases in the budget, coupled with the increasing population. Although the state as a whole has a declining population, BSD is experiencing an increasing population coupled with increased poverty and needs, resulting in their equalized pupils increasing steadily since FY11."
The projected tax increase from this year's budget, which will equal about 8.75 cents per $100 in property value, stems largely from decisions made at the state level. "Education spending across the state is forecasted to increase by more than three percent in FY15," said Pembroke, "Student population continues to decline across the state. These statistics, combined with over 60 percent of taxpayers receiving income sensitivity adjustments to their tax obligation, and declining property values across the state, have resulted in the state considering raising property tax rates."
Bennington is a receiving town, meaning it receives more money from the state towards the school budget than its residents pay.
Pembroke noted there are other factors that affect the education fund besides the property tax. "It is true that local decisions and local budgets contribute to the tax rate, but local education budgets are just a minor factor in setting our education tax rates," he said, "Sales tax, the lottery, and other sources also contribute to the cost of education. A strong economy should take pressure off the property taxes."
Pembroke said he is not opposed to the system "when the legislature lets it do its job." According to Pembroke, often the state passes down unfunded mandates that increase the costs for local districts, without giving them a means of paying for them. One example, he said, was recent legislation that would require school districts in Vermont to put $1,100 into a retirement fund every time they hire a new employee. This increased cost isn't funded by the state, and is instead reflected in the local budgets, leading to an increase that local boards have no control over.
Pembroke argued that those trying to send a message to the state about the high cost of education in Vermont by voting down the BSD budget are going about it the wrong way. "Who are you sending a message to?" said Pembroke, "If you're wanting to send a message to the state of Vermont, voting down the BSD budget is not going to do that. They don't care what happens to the Bennington budget.
"We saved some money on the buses this year because of some creative packaging," said Pembroke, "We're trying to save costs everywhere we can."
Pembroke said he could cut staff, increasing class sizes even more, but it wouldn't make a large difference in what Bennington residents see on their tax bill. "I could cut this budget. There are always ways. But if I cut this budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars, it will only decrease the tax rate by pennies."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB