It’s a weird system.
FAIRFIELD — The good news for Fairfield residents is that the proposed budget for Fairfield Center School is up only 0.62 percent to $5.49 million, the smallest percentage increase in the county.
The bad news is that the state’s school spending formula will likely mean an increase of 26 cents in the tax rate.
That increase means that for every $100,000 of assessed value, homeowners will pay an additional $260 in taxes.
This isn’t a new trend for Fairfield. Since 2012 the school budget has risen 1.02 percent from $5,406,900 to $5,491,179 in the proposed fiscal year 2015 budget.
During that same period, the tax rate has increased 35.5 percent, from 1.1802 to 1.6001.
“We’re a prime example of a school that’s been responsible with our budget increase,” said school board chairperson Michael Malone. Under the state’s formula for determining school taxes, the board can control the budget, but not the tax rates. “It’s frustrating,” said Malone.
The Vermont Legislature, on the recommendation of the state tax commissioner Mary Peterson, set the statewide homestead tax rate at $1.01 for fiscal year 2015, an increase of seven cents. Peterson based her recommendation on an anticipated increase in school spending across the state of 3.8 percent.
The final school rate in each community depends on three things: the ratio between the state’s base per-pupil spending level of $9,382; the school’s per-pupil spending; and the common level of appraisal (CLA).
School boards have limited control over the first and none over the second.
This year, a change in the CLA added 9.6 cents to Fairfield’s school tax rate. The CLA for Fairfield declined this year from 101.76 percent of the state average to 95.69 percent. Had the CLA for Fairfield remained at the same level as last year, the education property tax rate would be $1.5046 instead of $1.6001.
The rest of the increase has to do with changes in per-pupil spending and the equalized pupil count.
The state sets each school’s equalized per-pupil count based upon a weighted system based on the perceived use of resources for each student. Thus, preschool children count only as half a child in the equalized pupil count, while middle school students and students with special needs are weighted more heavily. “It’s a weird system,” said Malone.
Since 2012, Fairfield’s equalized per-pupil count has dropped 8.5 percent.
When a school loses a special education student, its pupil count drops by more than one. The school also loses federal assistance when special education students depart, decreasing non-tax revenue.
The per-pupil cost is determined by simple division. The number of students from the equalized count is divided into the amount to be raised in taxes, after an accounting of all other revenue sources has been made. This amount is referred to as “education spending.”
Losing a special education student increases education spending, because of a loss in federal funds, and decreases the per-pupil count, changing both sides of the equation and potentially increasing the average cost per pupil.
This year, Fairfield’s equalized pupil count dropped for the third year in a row. This time by 11.9. At the same time, special education revenue dropped by $83,000 helping to drive education spending up by $149,600. Thus, the school budget is up just $33,700, while education spending, the number used to determine spending per pupil is up by 4.4 times that.
Fairfield has been losing students, but not in ways that make it easy to cut the budget. “When kids leave, they don’t all leave in second grade,” said Malone. Instead, the students are spread out across grade levels.
For voters frustrated by the tax increase, Malone’s advice was, “Talk to state legislators because this isn’t coming from the school board.”
Asked if he felt the state should include tax incentives for schools like Fairfield that keep their budget increases low, Malone said, “I would be pleased if our taxes … would go up proportionately.” In other words, he would prefer to have a .62 percent budget increase result in a .62 percent increase in the tax rate.
Fairfield has long paid for a bus to transport high school students to Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans (BFA). Bakersfield students had begun riding the bus and Fairfield asked the Bakersfield school district to share the cost of the bus, Malone reported. When the Bakersfield board declined to even discuss the issue, the Fairfield board initially barred Bakersfield students from the bus, before agreeing with parents on a bus pass system.
Bakersfield parents will purchase bus passes for their students. BFA is assisting by collecting the funds and issuing the passes.
However, Malone said he believes it makes the most sense for BFA to pay for the bus, which could then pick up students from multiple towns.
The school board will host an informational meeting about the budget on Monday night at 7 p.m. at the school.