WSESD voters, citing student needs, pass $65.8M budget

Bottom line: hold legislators accountable for a difficult funding formula and last-minute decisions at the ballot box in November

After about 80 minutes of discussion, 242, or 1.7%, of Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) voters agreed to a $65,846,891 budget for fiscal year 2025 at its annual meeting on March 19.

The breakdown of voters in attendance at Brattleboro Union High School was: 120, or 1.3% of eligible voters, from Brattleboro; 35, or 2.2%, from Dummerston; 49, or 2.8%, from Guilford; and 38, or 1.9%, from Putney.

Moderator Steven Brown quickly dispatched articles electing him as moderator, Frank Rucker as treasurer, and Mo Hart as board clerk, and agreeing to pay school board members $7,000 each annually and the chair $9,000 annually.

11th-hour legislative changes wreak budget havoc

Shaun Murphy, board member and Finance Committee chair, explained that education taxes are based on several factors: the "yield" set by the legislature in May; the weighted student average; a common level of appraisal (CLA); and individual school district expenses. The state dictates all but the yield, which the legislature determines annually.

The budget represents a 3% increase from this year and includes a 16% increase in healthcare costs and a 4% increase in salaries. The budget plans for level staffing with 435 staff members, and enrollment has slightly declined, primarily from students opting out of the district through school choice.

CLA is a method of ensuring that each town pays its fair share of education property tax to the state education fund even if its grand list is not at 100% of fair market value.

Murphy explained that because the CLA is related to the real estate market and the Vermont real estate market is in a volatile state of high prices, tax rates are expected to rise by a projected 10.4% in Brattleboro, 9.6% in Dummerston, 13.4% in Guilford, and 12.6% in Putney.

Households earning $128,000 or less in annual income are eligible for tax bill income-sensitivity provisions.

Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Business Administrator Frank Rucker told the meeting that although Act 127 was introduced to address equity and funding in public schools here, legislators rescinded the important 5% tax rate cap on Feb. 22 - well after most school boards had voted on budget proposals.

"That exposed the board-approved budget to dramatic increases in taxes, and the board and administration thought that was not fiscally responsible," Rucker said, adding that the "unique part" of this budget cycle was "the degree to which there is uncertainty at this time of year."

In order to address the unknowns and provide what the board believes is a responsible budget both for student needs and taxpayers' ability to pay, Rucker and the Finance Committee plan to add $1.25 million from surplus money to the revenue side of the budget, and potentially institute spending freezes to get most district member towns closer to a 4% tax rate increase.

The plan includes moving $600,000 of interest from health reimbursement account reserve money, $150,000 of interest on government treasury bills, and $200,000 of revenue from the state that came as part of the 2015 education reform law, Act 46.

Keeping kids first

Rucker, noting that many school budgets have failed to pass across the state due to the legislative unknowns, said the budget includes staffing allocation, investment in training, and other supports that have had a "substantial impact on kids" and that administrators wanted to retain in the budget.

When questioned about 15 positions providing academic, social, and emotional support with Esser money - pandemic-era federal funds - Rucker said money was invested in school buildings to create safer air quality as well as in providing more support for students, who needed it after being out of school for a year.

"The framework was, What's best for kids?" added Superintendent Mark Speno, noting that all positions were evaluated and the 15 remaining are considered necessary to support students moving forward.

The district also has about $10 million in capital plans for the future.

About 70 minutes into the meeting, Dick DeGray of Brattleboro moved to reduce the budget by $3 million, a motion that ultimately failed.

DeGray said a lot of people in Brattleboro "are struggling deeply" and he believed a tax rate increase below 4% "wouldn't be a bad thing."

"I believe we should do this now and this would be the prudent thing to do for the taxpayers of our district," DeGray said.

Former board member Jaci Reynolds, also of Brattleboro, says she would enjoy lowering the tax rate, but that would mean a lot of needed student support would go away.

"It's unfortunate if the tax rate is a complicated issue, but it's more unfortunate if our kids don't have things they need," Reynolds said, adding that principals on the front lines were consulted and had come to these conclusions. "Any opportunity for tax savings feels good - except if it's going to have a negative impact on our kids."

Isaac Freitas-Eagan of Guilford, who grew up in the district and now teaches here, said, "It should be more obvious that investing in schools is the right thing to do with taxpayers' money."

Martha Noyes, a teacher outside the district who is a homeowner and longtime resident here, said she sees the struggle from both points of view but that it is "being a good role model" to "admit times are tough and budgets are tight and we would be acting fairly and appropriately if we tighten the budget, as we do in our homes."

"You know better than we do that this budget is just horrendous to understand," former board member Jodi Normandeau said to Rucker, adding that she would support the budget request but hopes there can be more dialogue in the future about items she believes can be cut.

Discussion about problems in schools and school culture prompted outgoing board member Robin Morgan to invite folks to attend meetings, and to note that two students sit on the school board.

"One thing that definitely will not improve school culture is cutting the budget," Morgan said.

Carmen Winchester, also a teacher, pointed out that the Legislature had put the district in this difficult position, and said the board has been responsible in crafting a proposed budget that reflects the needs.

"If you're angry about the money, pay attention and vote in November, and point your emotions toward your state legislature," Winchester said.

Lisa Ford of Guilford agreed, saying voters should hold legislators accountable at the polls.

"This is a very responsible budget; a 3% increase is really not a lot," she said. "That it impacts taxpayers is unfortunate, as it's due to a flawed education funding formula. It's not our school board; they're doing the best they can."

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

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