BENNINGTON >> The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union is faced with its largest budget increase in years, due in large part to the state mandate to provide early childhood education to all three-year-olds and an increase in special education population.
The projected budget, which was presented to the SVSU Budget Committee by chief financial officer Rick Pembroke on Thursday, calls for $22,952,416 to operate the supervisory union, which includes the Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, North Bennington, Woodford, and Mount Anthony Union districts, up $4,827,147, or 26.63 percent, from this current year's budget. The SVSU budget rose 6.2 percent for FY15 and 12.3 percent in FY16.
However, the raw numbers, said Pembroke, do not tell the whole story. The largest portion of that increase, he said, comes from special education, which is expected to see its budget rise 61.72 percent, or $2,979,430 next year. However, as SVSU special education director Wendy Pierce pointed out, the state will reimburse school districts 50 percent of all monies spent on special education students. After the school has spent $50,000 on a single special education student in a year, reimbursements for that student's expenses increase to 90 percent. Because of this, said Pembroke, local districts may only end up paying 30-40 percent of the total special education increase.
Vermont's Universal Pre-K bill is also having a large effect on the budget, said Pembroke, to the tune of an additional $643,679. While the state will not be reimbursing any of those funds, their affect on the tax rate will be mitigated, said Pembroke, by the increase in equalized pupils. The education tax rate formula in Vermont is not based on total spending, but on spending per equalized pupils, a weighted average of how many students attend each school district. Because the districts are adding the three-year-olds, the number of equalized pupils will increase, lowering the tax rate, at the same time that the budget is increasing. However, he said, the net result of the expanded pre-K will still be an increase to the tax rate. The SVSU, per the law, expanded pre-K services to all four-year-olds last year.
The final large increase to the SVSU, said Pembroke, is not an increase at all, but is instead of shifting of funds from the individual districts to the SU. Due to changes in state law, SU's are now required to provide transportation for their member districts, so $917,400 is being added to the SVSU budget to account for this. However, said Pembroke, the move will actually save the districts approximately $1,100,000 in total, actually saving the taxpayers $200,000. He pointed out that, ignoring the SPED and early childhood education increases, both of which are mandated by the state, and the transportation increase, which will actually be a net decrease when compared to the district budgets, the total increase in the SVSU budget is only 2 percent, most of which comes from contractual increases to faculty and staff.
Bennington representative George Sleeman remarked that there was almost nothing left in the budget that they had the power to cut, and wondered aloud what they would do if a budget was voted down. Committee chairman Ken Swierad, also of Bennington, echoed his sentiment. "I can understand the reasons behind it," he said, "But, son of a gun, when you talk about a 27 percent increase...," before trailing off, shaking his head.
The SVSU budget has not been finalized, and will continue to be discussed at their next meeting in January. How much the budget increase will affect tax rates will become clear as districts finalize their own budgets throughout the month of January.