Mascoma Spending Plan Down

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 28, 2017

West Canaan— Officials with the Mascoma Valley Regional School District are on track to approve a slight budget decrease for the 2018-19 school year, a move designed to appease residents who have made an annual tradition of voting down district budget proposals.

Both the Mascoma Valley Regional School Board and budget committee are considering a $27.2 million budget for the next school year, which amounts to a 1 percent, or $300,000, decrease from the current year’s spending plan.

If that proposal is defeated on the March ballot, the district would revert to a $27.8 million default budget, an increase of about $276,000 over the current year’s.

“The goal this year was to keep the budget low,” Debra Ford, the school district’s business administrator, said on Monday. “We worked really hard with the principals to level fund what we have.”

Few changes are proposed for the budget outside of fixed costs, such as health care and retirement spending, according to Ford.

Health insurance rates were set to rise next year, she said, but the district will likely offset some of those costs by combining staff health and dental plans.

Bond payments on the $21.5 million renovation and expansion of Mascoma Valley Regional High School will also remain flat at $1.3 million, according to the proposed budget.

No staffing changes are planned and only one program will be created, Ford said. The board has put an additional $15,000 into the budget for the formation of a girls high school soccer team.

The budget also includes a $253,000 increase in spending approved by voters last year as part of a three-year collective bargaining agreement with the Mascoma Valley Regional Education Association.

The School Board and budget committee are scheduled to meet on Dec. 4 to vote on a final budget number. The two panels will also hold a hearing in January.

Ford said it’s unlikely either group will significantly increase the proposed budget during those meetings, adding that current talks revolve around whether the district should purchase a 3-D printer for $11,000.

It’s too early to tell, Ford said, how the budget would impact tax rates in the district’s five-member communities of Enfield, Canaan, Grafton, Dorchester and Orange. However, she hopes the rates will remain “level” into next year.

Superintendent Patrick Andrew said the budget decrease is largely a response to voters who have shot down the last two district proposals, leaving schools to operate under default budgets.

Residents of Mascoma’s communities have argued that increasing school taxes are unsustainable and often leave the least fortunate struggling to pay property taxes.

Last year’s budget process was particularly heated, with residents submitting one petitioned warrant article calling for Andrew to be replaced because of his support for district budgets.

The measure was amended during the district’s deliberative session to instead commend Andrew, who has said he intends to step down at the end of this year.

Another article proposed the school district adopt a new formula for appropriating costs to towns.

“People appreciate much of what’s going on in the schools but they want a lower price tag,” Andrew said on Monday.

So, when this year’s budget season began, he directed staff to create “as lean a budget as possible.”

School Board members lauded the budget proposal on Monday, but said it’s not likely the effort will be replicated in the future.

“I think we all went into this year planning for this to be a pretty lean budget year,” said Danielle Thompson, who represents Enfield. “Having a budget that is less than the default is a very important thing.”

There is value in presenting a budget decrease, especially after two years of failing votes, Thompson said.

But the board will eventually need to move forward adopting programs and staffing changes that have long been discussed, she said.

“It’s about balance and I think that this is something that can be done at this point in time,” she said. “I don’t think it’s something that can be sustained over several years.”

Thompson said there’s also less flexibility built into the budget proposal, meaning it’s not guaranteed the district will return as much money to taxpayers.

This year, the School Board voted to return $1.3 million in unused funds to the towns, which in turn reduced local tax rates.

“That amount is expected to be much lower if this budget is to pass,” she said.

Wayne Morrison, who represents Canaan on the School Board, also said he intends to support the budget.

But that likely means the district won’t be able to hire a full-time athletic director or create more music and art programs, initiatives that were previously proposed, he said.

“One of the reasons we did this is because we’re trying to be sensitive to the concerns of the voters who’ve said the budget is getting to the point where it’s a problem for them,” he said.

The budget committee and School Board will next discuss the proposed budget at 6 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 4 at Mascoma Valley Regional High School.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223