BENNINGTON -- Bennington School District approved a budget Thursday that increases spending a staggering 19 percent in fiscal year 2014 and is expected to add 15 cents to the district's tax rate.
The board changed just one item in the proposal brought by administration before unanimously approving a budget that increases expenditures up $2.2 million to roughly $13.55 million. Administrators described the increase in the budget as the result of a perfect storm -- needs in the district have increased dramatically and revenue from the fund balance and federal aid is plummeting. While the board did approve the budget, it will not be warned to go before voters until later this month.
A 15-cent increase on the district's tax rate, which is still a fluid number because the state Legislature has yet to set the base spending per pupil and base homestead rate, would mean a person owning a $100,000 home would have to pay an additional $150 next year. However, Bennington's homestead tax rate is calculated by meshing BSD's tax rate and Mount Anthony Union's tax rate based on the percent of students in each school district, so the actual increase in Bennington will not be known until MAU finalizes its budget later this month.
The budget increase comes on the heels of a 7.7 percent increase in fiscal 2013. Spending was flat the three years prior to that, which Pembroke said required cutting staff and programs to offset inflation and has now contributed to the position BSD finds itself in because there is nowhere left to cut.
The most significant increase in the BSD budget is due to $1.45 million in additional assessments from the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union. Of that, $1.2 million is due to rising costs in special education to address increased student needs. All special education costs are in the supervisory union budget and assessed to member districts, although the decisions are made by the local districts.
"Even though those are SU assessments, those are decisions that are coming from your local students' needs," SVSU Chief Financial Officer Richard Pembroke told the board.
The increased special education costs cannot be avoided as there are new students entering the district who require services. There is also additional funding for the autism program that was, in part, added because of a public outcry from parents of autistic children who have argued in recent months that their children's needs are not being met.
"We're responding to improvements in some program delivery and new student needs," Superintendent Catherine McClure explained.
The SVSU assessment is also being impacted by a decrease in federal aid schools around the country are expected to receive as well as a couple of new positions.
Minus the SVSU assessment, the BSD's budget is up about $725,000, or 6.4 percent. That increase is due largely to contracted salary and health care increases and a handful of other additions.
No positions are being cut in the approved budget. There is an additional kindergarten teacher and paraprofessional at Bennington Elementary.
Other significant items include $50,000 for architectural fees to plan a 10,000-square-foot addition to Bennington Elementary, $60,000 for an initial bond payment on that addition, $50,000 for new computers, and $50,000 to repair the boiler at Bennington Elementary.
The only change the board made in the proposed budget was reducing part-time home-to-school liaison positions at both Bennington Elementary and Molly Stark Elementary from 0.6 to 0.45 positions. Principals of both schools said the positions have helped reduce absenteeism and tardiness while also improving the communication between the schools and some families. The reduction will amount to an estimated $50,000 in savings by trimming the salaries and eliminating the need to budget for benefits.
Last March when the budget was up 7.7 percent it received 58 percent voter approval -- the narrowest margin the BSD budget has been approved by in recent memory. With the fiscal year 2014 increase significantly higher, the board discussed briefly the importance of educating the public of the need for the increase.
"We all have to roll up our sleeves to do the best we can to sell these budgets," board member George Sleeman said.
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