January 9, 2024
Dear BSD Community,
I am writing with an update of our FY25 budgeting process and my presentation to the Board tonight, where I will be discussing a number of budget scenarios and making a recommendation. This is our fourth School Board meeting about the budget, with the Board scheduled to vote on a final budget proposal on January 16th. This year, the process has been particularly complex because the American Rescue Plan Funds (ESSER) are expiring and this is the first year of borrowing on the BHS/BTC bond.
In addition to these factors, on Wednesday we received updated numbers for our Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) from the state, which is one of the unknown factors that impacts our budget. The CLA is a measure of how closely property in a community is valued (for tax purposes) at fair market value. It is designed to ensure that everyone who pays Education Property Tax in Vermont pays based on the fair market value of their property. Essentially, when home values increase without being officially reappraised, the value of the property for tax purposes falls below fair market value and the CLA attempts to make up for this by increasing the tax rate during school budget season.
CLA numbers from the State come in near the end of our budgeting process each year, which requires us to estimate their impact as we build out our budgeting plan. This year, we were anticipating the CLA numbers would be close to last year because our City reappraised home values recently. Surprisingly, this year’s CLA came in at -7.87%.
This means, roughly, that tax rates would be at least 8% higher without any increase in school spending. Unfortunately, an increase in spending is unavoidable in BSD this year as we anticipate needing to add more than $15m to our budget largely in response to increased costs in wages and benefits ($5m) and costs associated with repaying the bonds for our new high school and technical center ($9.5m). We have worked hard as a leadership team to propose reductions to offset new programmatic investments, and our board worked hard as a part of a statewide coalition that led to the state updating the pupil weighting so it is more equitable statewide. Even with this, the CLA, which again has no relationship to school spending and our school budget, creates a significant tax increase.
As a result, tonight I am recommending a budget to the School Board that I believe is responsive to these budget pressures as it includes reductions in Central Office operations and eliminates some vacant positions, resulting in about $1.1m in reductions. At the same time, the budget also minimizes impacts on staffing, retains the current level of art positions in elementary schools, and provides us with about $1.1m in modest investments in areas such as literacy, mental health support, magnet schools, and our strategic plan. I believe this will allow us to continue to move our District forward and offer a great education for the children of Burlington.
Without the increase from the CLA, tonight’s proposed budget would have led to a 6.59% tax increase; however, with the CLA, my budget proposal would result in a tax impact of 13.97%. While I know this number is high, I want you to know that we have looked for every possible reduction that would not cut our budget or staffing to the bone. In fact, our numbers show that with the decreased CLA, the only way to get a tax impact of less than 10% would be to cut our staffing levels by 50 full-time employees (nearly 12%), which would not allow us nearly enough teachers to run our academic program.
This news is frustrating because it puts schools in the position of trying to defend an increase in the tax rate that is largely not the result of school spending decisions. I want you to know we are not the only district experiencing this pain; every other school district in Chittenden County is having this problem, and I have heard that there are districts in other parts of state experiencing this as well. I have reached out to some of Burlington’s representatives in the State House to let them know that this is a problem; we cannot hold up school budgets and hold school districts accountable because housing prices are increasing faster than cities can realistically complete reappraisals. Other superintendents have shared similar messages with the legislature as well.
The budget is ultimately a School Board decision, and I work hard to give them as much information as possible and my recommendation. As we head toward this decision, I am grateful for the School Board’s hard work and commitment to public education, to fighting for equitable funding statewide, and to doing everything in their power to support excellent schools while keeping costs as low as possible. I am also grateful for your partnership and support as a community. The board will meet to review this tonight at 6PM at Hunt Middle School (and Zoom) with a plan to vote next week. As we go through this process, please know you can reach out to me or your principal with any questions or concerns.
Thank you for taking the time to read this and for your support of Burlington students.