WSESD board approves its FY25 budget at $65.8 million

Education tax cap under legislative scrutiny as bill fast-tracked; district votes March 19

The Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) school board has approved a proposed $65,846,891 budget for fiscal year 2025. That represents a 3%, or $1,927,036, increase over this year's budget.

A public informational meeting is set for Tuesday, March 12. The warrant article had to be approved by the school board at its Feb. 13 meeting in order to post the warrant in time for the March 19 annual meeting, when voters from Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney will cast their budget ballots.

As adopted, 49% of the budget would go to direct instruction; 19% to special education, central administration, and busing; 14% to operate and maintain facilities; 8% to students and co-curricular buses; 6% to school administration and board services; and 4% to instruction.

Major drivers contributing to the budget increase are salaries for nine new employees in FY 2024 and one new employee in FY 2025, for health insurance, and for special education costs that outpaced what the state is reimbursing the district.

There is no debt service since the final payment of a $55 million bond for Brattleboro Union High School improvements was made in November. For capital improvements from FY24 through FY27, $14,616,804 has been budgeted.

Questions continue

The big wrinkle is that the state Legislature is widely expected to vote to remove the existing 5% education property tax cap. If that action is taken, the district could face a 9.5% increase.

If approved, bill H.850 would replace the current 5% homestead property tax cap with a new, 1%, discounted rate for school districts whose tax rates are adversely affected by that law. It is intended to then be phased out over five years.

The House Ways and Means Committee agreed to sponsor the bill and it has moved to the House Committee on Appropriations.

The bill adjusts funding to conform to a new state law, Act 127, which has already changed how students are weighted regarding poverty and English as a second language vis-a-vis state revenue. In addition, tuition money from other districts is no longer part of education spending as far as the state is concerned.

WSESD Business Administrator Frank Rucker, saying he's "never seen such volatility in the state's statistics," told the school board Jan. 23 that he expects to do "what we always do."

Specifically, Rucker said, the district will present "a plan that meets our student needs where they're at and knowing where we have been, and where our strategic plan needs to go, addressing our learning loss or learning needs, and all of those programs that we've been talking about."

At the Tuesday, Feb. 13 Finance Committee meeting, Rucker said, "This is a heck of a storm we're hitting, but we do have reasonable reserves."

The district will "get through this, but it's really challenging to convey," he said, noting that the WSESD is "100% dependent on the Legislature."

Finance Committee Chair Shaun Murphy noted the district will receive about $200,000 from the state as a reward for the 2019 merger.

At the Feb. 13 school board meeting, lengthy discussion about changing the annual meeting date took place, with the board ultimately agreeing to hold to the March 19 date.

"Our plan is based on student need, and we are in the process of getting through the pandemic and addressing our 20-year capital plan," Rucker said, calling the 3% increase a "reasonable financial commitment."

"We've been in situations many, many times over the years where there's some wrinkle or development that puts into question what will be the tax impact in June, in July, once we're through the process," Rucker said.

He added that he has "never seen there be a benefit to jeopardize our ability to retain our staff by delaying employment contracts and putting into question all the bids […] to repair our roofs and upgrade our old last boiler."

"We must retain those contractors now," he said.

Rescinding the 5% education property tax rate cap, "incentivizes districts to either reduce spending or identify additional revenues," Rucker said, adding that the Legislature's "retroactive changing the law the whole state used to develop the school budgets" is "pretty unprecedented."

If the 5% cap is withdrawn, Rucker said, the "assumption is that [the Legislature] will be able to substantially reduce the yield, which would reduce the CLA tax rate."

In May or June, the Legislature will decide the annual yield, which "can be thought of as the per-pupil amount of spending that can be supported with a uniform homestead tax rate of $1.00 on homestead value or 2% of household income," according to the state website.

Rucker and others noted that the district has no wish to foist an unbearable increase in the tax burden on taxpayers, and that the WSESD can make adjustments on the revenue side to protect them.

But, Rucker said several times, "we need to retain our excellent educators, reduce the amount of uncertainty. We need to move forward. We are resilient on a financial basis. We can make this adjustment in the storm."

He explained that if the cap is removed and districts that put additional reserves into the budget because the cap paid for them - which the WSESD did not do - "the Legislature will know and that money can be put back into the education fund as a resource, which then allows the yield to be adjusted, which lowers everybody else's tax rate."

The school budget can be amended on the town meeting floor, but only the total amount to spend, not any specific line item.

This News item by Virginia Ray was written for The Commons.

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