To the editor:
Weiland Ross's column of Dec. 18 unfairly attacks school boards and teachers. Granted, it's not as unfair as his previous column, in which he claimed the Taconic and Green Regional School District had asked for more money in the current budget on account of COVID-19 – ignoring the calendar, which shows the school board voted to recommend that budget last January, before the pandemic hit. But it's still mostly wrong.
Mr. Ross claims “school budgets are expected to increase!” Actually, a slight decrease was planned for the Taconic and Green budget as of the board's December 15 meeting. Had Mr. Ross read what Supt. Lowe presented to the board before that meeting or attended the meeting online, he would have noticed this. I hope he reads the budget and attends the next meeting, on 5 January, when the board will again invite public comment and then finalize the budget.
Mr. Ross blames the school districts because the property tax rate will rise – mostly on account of things over which local school boards have no control. As he notes, the Tax Commissioner has indeed projected a 9.5 cent increase in homestead tax rates and 10 cent increase in non-homestead rates. For the Taconic and Green District, 3.6 cents of this is caused by the drop in state tax revenues from things like sales, meals and lodging that the legislature dedicates to fund the state contribution to the Education Fund. About another 3.5 cents results from the decision that teachers' retirement contributions (not part of school district budgets) need to be increased to roughly five times last year's level. The sharpest budgeting pencil in the world would find it difficult to make up for those state Education Fund surprises. The District did reduce staff in response to declining enrollments – which Mr. Ross fails to recognize – but the savings from that cannot overcome the revenue the State lost on account of the pandemic.
Next, Mr. Ross says that the districts in the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union (BRSU) will have a $2,163,989 surplus for 2019-21, that about $500,000 was voted into the tax stabilization reserve fund last year, and that “the other $1.7 million is unaccounted for.” Because budgets are set by the voters in each district separately, not in the whole supervisory union, Mr. Ross's figures won't help the voters in each district decide how to vote on their district's budget.
Here are the relevant figures from page 13 of the Taconic and Green packet presented on the 15th, which is available on the “Districts” tab in the BRSU website: If the voters approve the budget in March, the anticipated $498,547 surplus for 2020-21 will be used to reduce the tax rate by about 2.7 cents per hundred dollars of assessed value. The tax stabilization reserve will be $1,274,296 when the fiscal year ends on 30 June, the same as it was last year. No money is “unaccounted for.” Before deciding whether to use any of the tax stabilization reserve to lower the tax rate any more, the Superintendent suggests – prudently, in my opinion – that we should wait until the board meets in January, when the State will have determined the number of pupils for tax purposes and how towns' tax rates must be adjusted depending on how up to date their property appraisals appear to be.
Not only is it prudent to wait as long as we can to decide how to use funds that we don't even have yet, but it is also prudent not to use up so much of the reserve that taxes in the following year would have to rise so much that the State would penalize the District. The reserve is used to even out the tax rate from year to year, to avoid penalties. Mr. Ross should know this.
Moving on from fiscal foggery, Mr. Ross unfairly attacks the teachers, claiming “school employees are being paid to do less work, and some are kept under contract with very little to do.” He says “inquiring minds” want to know what speech therapists and special education teachers are doing now. Well, he could have attended a school board meeting and inquired. Though the public can attend remotely held meetings, he didn't. Maybe he really doesn't want an answer because it would undermine his argument that teachers are “asking for more money to do less.” They are working harder than ever before, having to prepare lessons not only in the usual way for students who can come to school but also in a different way for those who attend remotely while trying to connect on a personal level with children whom they may never have met face to face. Our teachers deserve commendation, not carping.
The author is chair of the Taconic & Green Regional School District Board.