Hartford Board Sets Budget Goal

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, December 15, 2017

Quechee — School officials came to agreement on a budgetary spending goal this week, even as state-level wrangling over an education funding gap threatens to wallop Hartford and other school districts around the state.

School Board Chairman Kevin Christie and the four other members of the Hartford School Board said they’d like to bring Town Meeting voters a budget that includes an $855,000 increase, which would be a 3 percent spending bump over the current $28.9 million district general fund budget.

The proposed budget, which was put forward by Finance Director Jim Vezina and Superintendent Tom DeBalsi during a School Board meeting at the Ottauquechee School on Tuesday night, includes $532,000 in additional salary costs, which they attributed to a recently negotiated teacher contract, teacher step increases, and new contracts for support staff and administrators.

Other significant spending increases include $168,000 in psychiatric services for students, and $156,000 in outgoing tuition payments that will go mostly to pre-K programs, and special education services.

Vezina also identified some savings for the district, which will take some of the bite out of the cost increases.

Payments for a 2007 energy retrofit will expire, saving the district $139,000, and the new health plans offered through the state will result in net savings to the district of $176,000.

The district also is expected to benefit from a $341,000 boost in tuition revenues, as more high school students from sending districts choose Hartford.

Staff said they hoped to benefit from the recent vote to close the Chelsea High School, which will leave 60 students seeking a new high school, though Chelsea has a revote on the matter next month.

Christie, who has advocated for a communications administrator to help craft the district’s image, said he hoped to help establish spending priorities with the administration soon, but DeBalsi cautioned that it would be difficult to find workable trade-offs within the current budget.

“I’ll be honest,” DeBalsi said. “I don’t see us in a position of adding.”

The funding picture in Hartford is likely to change once the state figures out how to address an education funding gap that is estimated to be between $47 million and $80 million. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott will host an education summit next week, and has suggested that districts reduce staff to achieve more cost-effective staff-to-student ratios.

Though the Hartford School Board is targeting a 3 percent spending increase, if state revenues to the district are significantly cut, the board is leaving itself room to respond by making cuts to its proposal.

“It’s within our normal range of increases,” School Board member Peter Merrill said. “I think it makes sense to leave it where it is until the state tells us more.”

DeBalsi said the district also is seeking clarification from the state Agency of Education on how it calculated the school’s enrollment figures.

The number, which drives how much money is awarded to the school on a per-pupil basis, is not as straightforward as it might seem, because it uses a three-year average, and also weighs different types of students — pre-K, high school, and special education, among others— differently.

DeBalsi said the district’s in-house calculations show that Hartford has a higher enrollment figure than the state is currently crediting the district, and the outcome of that disagreement could impact the budget, and the impact on local taxpayers.

“What that actually plays out to be on the tax rate, we’ll have to see,” he said.

But he and Vezina are using working figures that show a 4.9 percent increase in the local education tax rate, which would amount to a $193 increase in the tax bill of a home with an assessed value of $250,000.

DeBalsi stressed that most Hartford residents — two-thirds — will instead pay based on Vermont’s income sensitivity formula. Those taxpayers would see a more modest increase of 1.9 percent, which amounts to $25 for a person making $50,000.

The proposed budget also would pull $200,000 from the school’s reserve funds, to ease the burden on taxpayers.

“Our fund balance is high enough now that we can do that,” Vezina said.

The School Board is expected to meet twice more before committing to a budget by the end of January.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.