BENNINGTON >> For the first time in years, Bennington School District could actually see a decrease in the education tax rate, despite an increase in SVSU assessments and penalties under Act 46.
The homestead education tax in the district has been increasing steadily since at least 2010, when the rate sat at $1.1241 per $100 in appraised property value. While the rate won't be dropping that low any time soon, the draft budget report presented by Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Chief Financial Officer Rick Pembroke showed a 2.93 cent decrease between FY16, this current school year, and FY17, from $1.4887 to $1.4594.
Pembroke also noted that the district's spending has increased enough to incur double taxation penalties under Act 46. However, the board is only $46.96 over the limit per equalized pupil, or $41,710.81 in total. Pembroke said, once the SVSU budget is finalized, perhaps as soon as this Thursday, the Bennington board will see their assessments drop, which should get them below the threshold and lower the tax rate even further.
The board invited SVSU special education director Wendy Pierce to speak at the budget meeting, as they were concerned about the special education cost increased that have made themselves felt at both the SVSU and BSD levels. "I want you to feel comfortable and confident that we do not have too many teachers," she said. Previously, Bennington board members have expressed concern at the very low student-staff ratios in the special education department, but Pierce has maintained that her staffing decisions are all based on the needs of the students. She also assured the board members that she was still looking for ways to trim the special education budget. "We'll continue to look at anything that comes up," she said, "this process isn't over. I meet with Rick regularly."
While Bennington's budget is increasing this year, by $1,501,856.02, or 11 percent, Pembroke explained several mitigating factors that allow the tax rate to decrease in spite of this. The district is seeing a big increase in equalized pupils, from 852.15 to 888.18, which is partially explained by the inclusion of three-year-olds in the pre-kindergarten program, which is mandated by the state starting in FY17. The town's common level of appraisal has also gone up since last year, due to homes selling closer to market rate than they have in recent years, which drives the tax rate down. The district also saw a large increase in revenues, largely coming from the state to offset the increases in special education, equaling a $769,917.03 increase from last year.
Pembroke noted that most of these numbers are still subject to change, but suggested if they are going anywhere, it will be in the district's favor, as he has some placeholder numbers in the budget that are expected to be higher than what will actually be needed. He said those would be ironed out in the coming weeks. The budgets of the SVSU have to be finalized by the end of the month.
The Bennington School Board meets the first Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. in the either music room at Bennington Elementary, the auditorium at Monument Elementary, or the library of the Molly Stark School, depending on the month. Full recordings of their meetings are available on Catamount Access Television, and on the station's YouTube page.