Hartford School District Pitches Next Budget to Board

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2018

White River Junction — Hartford School District Director of Finance Jim Vezina on Wednesday outlined a proposed $39.3 million budget for the 2019-20 school year, a figure that is still pending teacher contract negotiations and the state of Vermont’s final Common Level of Appraisal for the town.

The budget — which the School Board hopes to vote on by Jan. 9 — is approximately $1.17 million higher than the current fiscal year but would still require a 1.6 percent lower tax rate because of increases in projected education grant funding and other factors.

More than $956,000, or 73.2 percent, of the total budget is made up of teacher salaries and benefits, a figure calculated even though teacher contract negotiations are ongoing.

Zach Scott, a Hartford Village resident, wondered how that’s possible during Wednesday night’s School Board meeting at Town Hall.

“How can you estimate that if the contract is not signed and agreed upon?” Scott asked. “I also imagine it is open enrollment period for employee benefits. ... What is the process for making these estimates if it’s not finalized?”

Vezina answered: “Even if we had a finalized, negotiated contract, it’s only a number,” he said. “We don’t know (which teachers are) leaving, who’s retiring. We don’t know about all of the health insurance changes and things of that nature. It’s our best estimate on what we think we’re going to have for the next school year.”

The final budget figure — and tax rate — also still could be affected by what Superintendent Tom DeBalsi called his “wish list” of items that still could be added, such as the addition of a half-time foreign language teacher to serve the town’s three public elementary schools and bathroom upgrades in both Hartford High School and Hartford Memorial Middle School.

“As a superintendent you have a wish list, almost like a child at Christmas,” he said. “I realize that sometimes (the Board’s response) is, ‘That’s really nice, but it’s not going to happen this year.’ ”

School Board member Peter Merrill requested that any additional items be tabulated on a chart and that each include a column estimating how each would impact the tax rate. “Right now, it’s a 1.6 percent reduction for town residents, so if we can see the impact (of additional projects), we can see how we still might be able to give a little back (to taxpayers in the form of a rate reduction).”

During DeBalsi’s safety and security updates, he spoke of an ongoing issue regarding motorists passing school buses whose red lights are flashing, including several incidents forwarded to Hartford police. Notice of the problem was included in a recent newsletter, DeBalsi noted, and plans are in place for a message on the digital sign outside town hall to remind motorists to stop when behind school buses stopped en route.

“Affidavits have been filled out by bus drivers in those (illegal passing) instances, and the police department has the license plate numbers,” DeBalsi said. “For whatever reason, some people aren’t clear about the law and think they’re allowed to pass if it’s in a parking lot or at an intersection. But the law is that the only time it is permissible is if there is a median between you and the bus.”

School Board member Michelle Boleski asked if it might be pertinent to look into installing cameras that could help record illegal passing incidents. DeBalsi noted that his rough estimate would be an expanse of $3,000-$5,000 per bus, depending on camera quality, and that there are currently two cameras on each bus to monitor student behavior.

Boleski hopes more can be done to increase public awareness of the issue.

“All it takes is one incident for a real tragedy,” Boleski said. “I’d like to see things like a public service announcement in the newspaper and postings on the school Facebook page and website, as well as the (digital) sign outside the school. Any way to help it sink in, because this is a real problem that is happening all over the Upper Valley and all over the country.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.