Saturday January 26, 2013

NORTH BENNINGTON -- Voters in the North Bennington Graded School District will have to vote on two ballot articles to approve the spending plan proposed by the Prudential Committee, which is projected to result in a 15 cent district tax rate increase.

A fiscal year 2014 budget will not be finalized until next week, but the budget recommendation of the board will trigger the state’s two-vote provision. Act 82, which expires after this year, requires districts to divide the budget vote into two questions if the proposed budget would result in spending per equalized pupil higher than the state average and increase spending higher than the rate of inflation plus one percent.

In order to avoid the provision the Prudential Committee would have to cut $90,000 from its current draft, a move none of the four members said Thursday they were interested in doing.

"I feel like there’s no way we’re going to cut enough to get under two votes so why not try to really maintain what we’ve got. We’ve been cutting and cutting and cutting every year, and talking and talking and talking about maintaining the integrity of the education," board member Glenn Chaney said.

"I don’t think we should make any decision based on the two-vote requirement because: A, it’s sunsetting after this year.


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B, it was a dreadfully stupid decision on the part of the Legislature in the first place, and C, no (budgets have been voted down because of it)," Chairman Raymond Mullineaux said.

Since Act 82, commonly referred to as the two-vote provision, was enacted into law in 2007 no SVSU district has met the threshold. The law requires one ballot article asking voters to approve on the portion of the budget that falls under inflation plus one percent, and a second article to approve the portion that exceeds that mount.

Richard Pembroke, chief financial officer for Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, said cutting $90,000 would mean not replacing a literacy and math specialist who is retiring this summer and cutting half of another literacy support position. By doing that, Principal Thomas Martin said literacy and math groups that now have seven or eight students would have 10 or 11.

The board is still faced with finding $20,000 to cut from its most recent draft in order to get under a state excess spending penalty, which would result in a tax surcharge on residents because the per pupil cost is more than 125 percent of the state average. To get under the penalty threshold the board agreed to look at reducing the equipment line in the budget, which would delay technology upgrades.

Even after getting under the threshold the district’s budget of around $2.3 million is up $200,000, or about 10 percent, if the district continues operating a school next year. The increase is largely due to a loss of federal grant funds and an increase in SVSU assessment -- largely for special education increases.

The increase would result in a 15 cent tax rate increase for the school district, however the actual homestead tax rate increase in the district would be about 10 cents after blending the rate with the Mount Anthony Union School District.

The budget increase is even greater if the Prudential Committee goes ahead with closing North Bennington Graded School, according to a draft budget Pembroke distributed. Including a tuition rate given to the district by the independent Village School of North Bennington, and assuming all of the public school children go there, that draft had an additional $77,000 of expenses. The largest increase is $45,000 for one-time severance or retirement payments to teachers who would retire from the public school this summer and then be hired by the independent school. According to the teachers’ contract the district would be required to make those severance payments, Pembroke said. Another $20,000 was added to the non-operating draft to put into escrow for an existing bond, however there is still a question whether that account would need to be formed. There are still a number of other questions that must be answered about the non-operating budget scenario as well, including if SVSU’s assessment would be negotiated lower.

Martin said Friday the board is going to work on reducing the non-operating budget to the same spending level as the operating budget.

The Prudential Committee plans to warn a spending amount just below the penalty threshold Tuesday at 9 a.m. If the board later decides to close the school the spending approved by voters would still be the maximum amount it would spend.

The Prudential Committee is "committed to fulfilling their pledge to the community that if the district is to proceed to a non-operating status the change must be cost neutral to the taxpayers," Martin wrote in an email.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi