Hartford school budget ready for voters

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/15/2021 9:49:25 PM
Modified: 1/15/2021 9:49:23 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Hartford School Board members are sending a proposed $41 million budget to voters at Town Meeting but say the spending plan for the 2021-22 school year was complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the student population and housing prices in town.

As a result, school officials are also putting off roofing projects at two schools.

“We had to make some real changes,” Hartford School District Director of Finance Jim Vezina said at a virtual School Board meeting Wednesday where the budget was unanimously approved.

The proposal is roughly a $344,000 increase from the current year’s budget and reflects a 2.9 cent per $100 of valuation increase on the tax rate, to roughly $1.72. That translates to a $73 increase on a $250,000 home for homeowners not eligible for Vermont’s income sensitivity program.

Vezina said the district had to make some cuts to its proposed budget after receiving the town’s common level of appraisal last month. The CLA, a method of ensuring that each Vermont town is paying its fair share to the state’s Education Fund, dropped for Hartford from 95% to 93%, reflecting a rising real estate market in town that is outpacing current assessed values.

“It makes a substantial difference on our tax rate,” Vezina said of the CLA’s impact.

Board chair Kevin Christie suggested that the reason for the decrease in the CLA, which in turn increases the tax rate, has to do with the number of people who moved to Hartford last year, in many cases spending more on a house than its assessed value.

“A lot of that I think has to do with COVID in general,” Christie said at the meeting. “(House) sales are that way across the state.”

The negotiated teacher salaries also added $900,000 to the budget, Vezina said.

“They need to be done but we felt con strained to meet the School Board and superintendent’s requirements,” Vezina said, adding that he didn’t want to the district to end up proposing a tax increase that was in the realm of 8% or 9%. “So we’re kicking the can down the road.”

During the meeting, board member Russell North suggested identifying some money from the district’s reserve fund to pay for the roofs, but board member Peter Merrill said he was concerned about the potential lasting impact of the pandemic.

“I think, given the economic uncertainty we’re facing, we should err toward having a slightly larger reserve fund,” Merrill said. “I’m a little concerned we don’t know how badly COVID will affect us.”

Superintendent Tom DeBalsi also discussed the direct impact the pandemic has already had on the school population. He said amid the outbreak of COVID-19, the district lost around 50 to 60 pre-Kindergarten students, many of whom are now being taught at home. The reduction in student numbers came around September and October as parents were “a little intimidated about how COVID would play out in schools,” he said.

“We’ve worked really hard on pre-K numbers and had some nice plans laid out for this year,” DeBalsi said. “We weren’t able to recoup our numbers so it’s been hard.”

Budget documents and links to access the school board meetings can be found online at hsdvt.com.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

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