DUMMERSTON—The baby chicks in the middle school science classroom chirped and chattered at the back of the classroom where the Windham Southeast School District’s school board held the first of two informational meetings on June 11.
Fewer than 10 people — scarcely more than the six birds in the classroom — attended the hour-long meeting at Dummerston School.
Board chair Kristina Naylor introduced the school district’s first combined budget for the newly created Windham Southeast School District for the 2020 financial year. The $50.2 million budget will serve pre-kindergarten-through-grade-12 grade education in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney.
Naylor informed the audience that the budget represents the transition under Act 46 from individual school districts and their boards to the merged WSESD and its combined board.
The short time frame the boards have worked under means the proposed $50 million budget is not a “true unified budget” but instead is a combination of the budgets initially created for the member schools.
Still, the combined budget has received the scrutiny of 28 board members and voters approval. In the case of Brattleboro, Dummerston, and Putney, their voters approved the nascent district’s initial budgets at their respective Annual Town Meetings this year, Naylor added.
“And that is a certain level of help in this transition year,” she said.
Voters in the member towns will decide the final proposed WSESD budget on Tuesday, June 25. The vote happens at 7 p.m. in the Brattleboro Union High School gym.
Per an amendment made to the school district’s articles of agreement earlier this year, the vote will be from the floor — also called a voice vote — rather than by Australian ballot.
Historically, turnout has been low for school district meetings with similar voice votes on the agenda. In 2017, less than 1 percent of BUHS District #6 voters approved a $25.4 million budget.
If the pattern repeats for the WSESD budget, it means that only a handful of people will approve or reject the expenses, giving the voters who show up a lot of power, Naylor said.
Naylor said the board is working on offering child care during the meeting and will arrange for transportation. She urged residents to contact board members if they need a ride.
Naylor explained that the Windham Southeast School District needs to have a budget in place by July 1 — otherwise, the nascent district will have no way to pay its obligations, including the teachers who work with students over the summer vacation, she said.
A short-term loan — ordinarily, a cash-flow tool available to school districts — is not an option because the state has not given WSESD any way to borrow money without a budget in place.
How is the tax rate calculated?
Naylor broke down the budget and each town’s corresponding tax rate.
“While based on a straight student count, the formula for ‘equalized pupils’ gives less weight to pre-kindergarten pupils and extra weight to students in secondary school, those from economically deprived backgrounds, and those whose first language is not English.
“The principle behind the weighting is that it costs more to educate students in certain categories.”
Education spending in Vermont is based on dividing the number of equalized pupils in a district by the amount needed to be raised in taxes.
Some of the weighted criteria include factors such as special education, age, and socioeconomic conditions.
The state also maintains an “excess spending threshold.”
If the cost per equalized student is above the threshold, the district is taxed double for every dollar it spends above the threshold.
This year’s threshold is $18,311.
Naylor explained that, in the WSESD’s case, this meant subtracting $9.65 million in “offsetting revenues” — such as grants, donations, or tuitions — from the total budget of $50.2 million.
That new $40.2 million total represents the education spending that must be raised through taxes. Divide the education spending by the district’s 2,234 equalized pupils, and the district’s education spending per equalized pupil is $18,139 — just below the spending threshold.
Naylor then explained the tax rate for each of the WSESD’s member towns.
To calculate the initial education tax rate for a town, you divide per-pupil spending by the yield. The yield — this year’s is $10,648 — is a figure developed annually by the Department of Taxes and approved by the Legislature. Baked into this figure is the state’s capacity to fund education — via various taxes, lottery revenues, and the General Fund — divided by the number of equalized pupils in the state.
The yield is provided as a way to calculate the portion of the per-pupil cost that will need to be raised from local property taxes.
This year, the WSESD’s per-pupil spending is 170 percent of the yield, which represents a local tax rate of $1.70.
There is one more step.
Each town’s final tax rate is determined by its local property values, or common level of assessment, to compensate for the differences in the local real estate market. Brattleboro’s rate is $1.642. Dummerston’s is $1.643. Guilford is at $1.689. Putney’s rate is $1.709.
Budgets increase in all district schools
All schools saw an increase in their budgets compared to the previous fiscal year. Most of the increases were due to costs such as health insurance or previous contractual obligations.
A few of the increases resulted from adding staff, such as the dean of students at Brattleboro Union High School, or programming such as Dummerston’s new pre-kindergarten program, which will offer free all-day education to 4-year-olds next year, said Naylor.
She said that when the Dummerston School Board first approved launching the program, its members knew funding would be “a killer” in the first year. The state prohibits including students involved in new programs like pre-kindergarten in a school’s equalized count because the state “looks back two years” as part of the equalization formula, she said.
At first, the new program pushed Dummerston Elementary over the per-pupil spending threshold because, on paper, school spending increased but the student population did not. The school obtained a grant that offset spending, Naylor said.
Regardless of the threshold, the board felt the new program would be worth the additional costs, she said.
Studies routinely point to “preschool being some of the best money you can spend in education,” Naylor said. “We thought it was a really great investment.”
Naylor added that Guilford and Putney have had good luck with identifying students who can benefit from early intervention.
All the schools, with the exception of Putney, used surplus funds to reduce the amount needed to be raised through taxes.
School board Vice Chair Anne Beekman said that Putney’s portion of the budget is “pretty much level-funded.”
She added that the school has hired a paraprofessional educator and increased funding for special education.
Beekman also said that the number of second-graders “has exploded,” so the school has needed to hire another teacher.