WINHALL — The Winhall Town School District board has approved an approximately $4.3 million budget for fiscal year 2022.
The three-member board of the non-operating district, which has seen an influx of new students amid the coronavirus pandemic, opted to forgo its customary inclusion of 15 “ghost students” — students projected to join the district after the budget is finalized — in the proposal to avoid incurring a financial penalty for exceeding the state-determined per-pupil spending threshold.
In the event that unbudgeted-for students do arrive in the next fiscal year, which starts in July, and a deficit results, the district could raise that amount in a future fiscal year, Sue Wilborn, Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union’s business manager, said during the board’s Jan. 6 meeting.
The district might also be able to draw upon federal Coronavirus Relief Fund money to offset the cost of unexpected students for 2022 — a possibility that would be foreclosed, oddly enough, if the district were to budget for them, according to Wilborn, who cited guidance from Guidehouse, a consultant for the state.
Board members voiced support for the approach in light of that fact.
“If we allow those extra students to become a deficit, we have way more flexibility and options to deal with that later down the line,” said board member Dean Gianotti, Jr.
Wilborn said she is hopeful, too, that the district will receive additional CRF funds to address the district’s anticipated deficit for the current 2020-2021 school year, which is currently projected to be just over $200,000, according to board documents. The district expects to end the school year more than 20 students over the approximately 202-pupil count reflected in the voter-approved budget.
“Given the fact that we don’t have to do something about our anticipated deficit right now, I think we table it, we leave it where it is, and we keep our fingers crossed that we’re going to get CRF money to cover it because there’s real potential there for that to happen,” Wilborn told the board.
The $4,309,140 budget proposal for the next fiscal year, which represents a 12 percent increase in expenditures over the budget approved by voters last March, would entail a tax-rate increase of about 3.6 cents per $100 of property value, according to board documents. That’s substantially lower than the potential tax-rate hike of about 20 cents or more that the board contemplated at a much more preliminary planning stage in October.
Around that time the board had even discussed obtaining a three-year, low-interest loan to help cover the anticipated deficit, an option that has been shelved, at least for now.
The 2022 budget proposal reflects a projected student count of 223.5, Wilborn confirmed in an email on Monday.
At the Jan. 6 meeting, the board also opted to delay making a decision on what exactly to do about its upcoming annual Town Meeting in light of the continued coronavirus threat, instead scheduling another meeting for Jan. 19 to allow for the possibility that the Vermont Legislature will pass a law allowing municipalities this year to delay town meetings, which ordinarily are held on the first Tuesday of March. BRSU administrators have said that, in the event such legislation is enacted, May 1 would be the latest possible date that the district could feasibly hold its annual meeting.
State lawmakers already passed a law last year that allows for municipal boards to switch to Australian ballot systems for 2021 annual meetings without prior voter authorization.
State Rep. Kelly Pajala, I-Londonderry, who previously told the Winhall board that it’s hoped that the bill will land on Gov. Phil Scott’s desk by Jan. 16, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Monday. Gianotti said he felt strongly that the board should strive to organize a single, “unified meeting day” with the town of Winhall, as is traditionally the case.
The Winhall Select Board voted at a meeting on Jan. 6 — held concurrently with the school board meeting — to schedule its Town Meeting Day for April 27, opting not to wait for the state legislative change.
Selectman William Schwartz said during the meeting that he had contacted the Vermont Secretary of State’s office “to find out ... what happens if we decide as a town to hold our meeting on a different date, and it didn’t sound like there was any ramification to that.”
If the law change does not pass as expected but the town still postpones its meeting, “what are they going to do?” Schwartz asked. “Tell us our meeting is no good? That we have to have another meeting? There’s nothing for them to do. There’s no reason for us not to postpone our meeting. Great to wait for the ... legislative authority, but there’s nothing that can stop us from changing the meeting other than the three of us.”
Eric Covey, chief of staff for the Secretary of State’s office, wrote in an email on Tuesday that municipalities “do not currently have the authority to move the date of Town Meeting,” noting that the bill that would authorize them to do that — H.48 — was still being considered by lawmakers.
“Our office strongly supports giving towns the resources, flexibility, options and tools to safely and securely hold town meeting day elections in whatever way the towns determine makes most sense for their specific circumstances,” Covey wrote. “If they have already voted to move their Town Meeting Day, we believe that if and when the Legislature passes and the Governor signs H.48, they should affirm (or revote).”
When news of the Select Board’s decision on moving Town Meeting Day reached the school board while the latter’s meeting was still underway, BRSU Superintendent Randi Lowe counseled against the school board taking similar action at that time.
“You can’t make that decision tonight because there’s no statute or legal authority that you have to do that right now,” she said.