Hartford School Board OKs $43.7 million budget proposal ahead of Town Meeting

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 1/14/2022 8:08:59 AM
Modified: 1/14/2022 8:08:07 AM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — The Hartford School Board has approved a nearly $43.7 million budget proposal to go before voters at Town Meeting.

The pandemic continues to dominate budget changes. Due to the particular challenges of serving food safely, money for contracted food services was increased by $100,000 compared with last year’s budget.

“With COVID, we’re anticipating that we’re going to need a little more support there next year,” said Jake Vezina, the district’s Assistant Business Manager.

If approved, the budget is expected to increase school taxes about 0.7%.

Board member Russell North said that COVID-19 pandemic requires special attention to continuing education for teachers who are trying to help students who have fallen behind catch up. Unused money for teacher training from last year will be moved over to the general fund to cover those costs again.

Further, pending legal consultation, the board voted in favor of allocating $800,000 of existing surplus to augment a current reserve or to establish a second capital reserve fund.

Hartford’s common level of appraisal, or CLA, a formula used to ensure each Vermont town is paying its fair share to the state’s education fund, dropped again this year. It now stands at 86.7%. A decrease in the CLA typically results in an increase in a town’s tax rate.

Between fiscal year 2021 and fiscal year 2022, the CLA decreased from 95% to 93%. Fiscal year 2023 saw a 6.5% decrease.

The budget was initially presented to the board at nearly $44 million, but North voted against the proposal.

“We have a surplus, so this may be a time where we would have to be perhaps more like a traditional business and take a calculated risk,” said North, who proposed reducing the bottom line to $43,665,588, the number that the board approved.

“It’s more representative of the balance between fully funding what we need to do and the ability of our taxpayers to afford it,” North said.

Still, the budget will be reviewed again and could be adjusted upon further financial projections from the state, including the funding allocated to special education support after the passage of Act 173 and finalization of the district’s equalized pupil number, a part of the state funding formula.

Tom DeBalsi, Hartford School District superintendent, described the stress the most recent wave of the pandemic has created for teachers and administrators.

“Christmas break was a relief,” said DeBalsi. But when school came back in session, cases started spiking again.

DeBalsi said that contact tracing is manageable at the elementary and middle schools, but it becomes more difficult in the high schools with students moving from class to class.

“Late last week the state sprung on us that they were really going to change up the way we handle COVID,” said DeBalsi, referring to revised protocols that among other things de-emphasize contact tracing.

Under the new guidelines, the onus for testing students for COVID-19 is shifting from schools to families, though a shortage of testing raises questions about implementation. DeBalsi said that this change in procedure has left many concerned.

“Basically we’re in this limbo between what we were doing and what we’re supposed to be doing,” he said.

The district plans on using existing PCR testing supplies while they wait on more support from the state.

Additionally, Adam Ricker was appointed to the Town School Meeting Committee after approval by the board.

Budget documents and links to access the school board meetings are available online at hsdvt.com.

Frances Mize can be reached at fmize@vnews.com

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