MANCHESTER >> Faced with the prospect of a huge tax rate increase, the Manchester School Board took a long look at what programs and projects might be cut.
The district is looking at a large budget increase, driven in large part by a 7.1 percent increase in the cost of special education, a 3 percent negotiated increase in teacher salaries, a 7.9 percent increase in healthcare costs, and a 1.8 percent increase in the tuition rate of Burr and Burton Academy, where most Manchester Elementary Middle School students attend high school. Addtionally, the tax rate will increase due to a decline in students at the school and new penalties for what the state has deemed excessive budget growth, which were imposed under Act 46 of 2015. To make matters worse, the board, in an effort to lower the tax rate last year, had not budgeted additional money for unexpected students entering the district. When 15 unexpected students did end up entering the district, the school suffered from a budget deficit, which had to be made up for this year.
At the board's last meeting, they asked Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union Superintendent Daniel French to provide them with a list of all programs that could be cut from the budget without violating state or federal mandates. The list, which was distributed to the board and faculty at the school over the weekend, included one of the school's two guidance counselors, one of the school's two physical education teachers, the school's Spanish teacher, the school's behavior educator, a paraeducator responsible for operating the Planning Room, the school's music teacher, and the entire pre-kindergarten program, which is made up of two teachers and three paraeducators.
The board estimated they would need to trim $400,000 from the budget to get under the spending penalties from Act 46, which double tax any growth over a certain amount. Without the spending penalties, the district's education tax rate would have increased by 14 cents from the $1.470 rate per $100 in appraised property value taxpayers paid last year, but with the penalty, it is instead projected to increase by 26 cents, a 20 percent increase, to $1.728. To put this in perspective, a Manchester resident with an assessed property value of $300,000, roughly the average, would pay $774 more than last year based on this increase.
The decrease in student population, a trend across the state, has been felt acutely in Manchester. The school has 569 actual students, down significantly from the over 625 students the school had just a few years ago. Under state law, a school's average daily membership cannot decrease by more than 3.5 percent in any given year, and so-called "phantom students" are created to lessen the impact of steep enrollment drops. Manchester is still benefitting from this position, with phantom students bringing their number of equalized pupils, one of the key factors in the tax rate, up to 604.41. However, phantom students are being phased out under Act 46, although the law allows for school's to extend the period of time their phantom students are included in the calculation by merging with other districts. "We're spending more, though we have fewer students," said board chairman Brian Vogel, "and that's one of the ratios we're struggling with right now."
Vogel welcomed the large crowd that had come out to the Jackie Parks room to support the positions on the list, which was made up of students, parents, and teachers, thanking them for coming and calling them the largest crowd he had ever seen at a board meeting. Present and former students spoke up in support of the Spanish, music, and physical education programs, and teachers questioned the lack of communication from the board about these potential cuts before the meeting, and questioned the direction the school was going. Even principal Thomas Quinn expressed frustration at the lack of communication between the board and himself in a written statement.
After the board heard from the public, they began to debate how they could balance the needs of the students with the needs of the taxpayers. "We could put a 26 cent increase in front of the voters, and see what they say," said Vogel, who expressed frustration with the state for putting their school in this position, "but people are stretched as it is, and to hit them with a 20 percent increase is just unbearable for some people." When one resident called for the board to look to other places than staff to "cut fat" from the budget, Vogel responded, "There's not a lot of fat here."
"There are a lot of other, smaller things in the budget (that can be cut)," clarified French, "but they won't get you near where you want to go."
The board agreed quickly that the playground could be funded through fundraising, rather than taxes, and agreed to cut it from the budget, saving $80,000, which drew applause from the crowd, most of whom remained after the public comment section. However, when Vogel suggested cutting the pre-K program, and instead tuitioning the students out to other providers, which would have saved a net $219,079, audible cries of "Oh no!" were heard from the public, and a new round of public comments began, including emotional remarks from one of the pre-K teachers.
Board member Stephen Murphy, who was attending the meeting remotely, suggested that the board's best option might be to blow past the spending limits, or, as he put it, to "spend like a drunken sailor," for one year. The penalties are assessed once a school's budget grows more than a certain percentage (which is different based on the school) over the previous year's budget. If their budget was high this year, and the taxpayers were willing to take a hit for one year, they would likely not be double-taxed in the future, where as if the board were to try to be responsible to the spirit of the law and cut their budget as much as possible, they would be faced with the prospect of double taxation and tough budget cuts every year.
The budget must be finalized before Jan. 15, and the board is expected to meet at least once more before then. Vogel said he and the other board members would need time to think on Murphy's idea, as well as the comments from the public. Before closing that portion of the meeting, Vogel re-affirmed the board's desire maintain the level of programming the school currently has, saying, "We, as a board, have no desire to cut programs and staff."