ST. ALBANS CITY – According to school officials, the Maple Run Unified School District (MRUSD) is proposing a “status quo” budget.
At more than $61.8 million, the school budget proposed by MRUSD officials for schools in Fairfield and St. Albans for the upcoming school year has increased by less than 3% from the prior school year’s $60.4 million districtwide budget.
Due to the formula used by the state to calculate local education taxes, however, both Fairfield and St. Albans Town taxpayers are expected to see tax rates climb in the coming year, while St. Albans City’s education taxes remain relatively steady.
Increases in the district’s education spending stem largely from rising health insurance costs, which school districts have little sway over now that teachers’ health care benefits are negotiated statewide.
Special education costs are also projected to increase under the school district’s spending plan, reflecting a greater need for special education services from the district’s incoming students, according to MRUSD officials.
Budgeting at a ‘status quo’
According to MRUSD leadership, there are few changes between last year’s budget and what officials are proposing for the 2021 and 2022 school year.
“There were some attempts to be conservative this past year … [but] I would say next year, we’re looking forward,” the district’s retiring superintendent, Kevin Dirth, said. “There’s a lot of work that’s going to be needed to get kids where they need to be.”
“It’s basically status quo,” he added.
With three elementary schools, a high school and a technical center spread between Fairfield, St. Albans City and St. Albans Town, as well as the Collins Perley Sports and Fitness Complex, MRUSD is the largest school district in the county.
According to school officials, staffing costs in the district rose between 2020 and 2021 due to a hike in health insurance costs, which is out of the hands of local school boards.
“It’s more out of our control now than ever before,” Dirth said.
For MRUSD, the higher cost for health insurance benefits accounts for roughly $1 million under the proposed budget, according to the district’s business manager, Martha Gagner.
The district is also looking at spending $800,000 more on special education this coming year, which Gagner said was dictated by district needs.
Some of those costs are offset elsewhere in Maple Run’s budget, as costs previously associated with general education are reassigned to the district’s special education budget to reflect use of those services.
Officials from MRUSD, in an interview last week, pitched the proposed budget as more forward thinking than retroactive, saying they tailored the budget to the expected needs of students returning to schools after a year that saw many students working from home due to COVID-19.
Currently, most of the districts’ elementary school students have returned to learning primarily in person, per standing Agency of Education guidelines. High school students remain in a “hybrid model” of learning, blending time in school with time spent learning from home.
According to MRUSD officials, officials are still working to understand the overall effects COVID-19 has had on Maple Run’s students and staff. A “recovery plan” for the district was currently being explored by the schools’ leadership, MRUSD officials said.
“We’re in the midst of that work right now,” MRUSD’s incoming superintendent and current assistant superintendent Bill Kimball said.
The pandemic, Kimball noted, was also something students and staff were still experiencing, given COVID-19’s continued presence in the Franklin County and wider Vermont community.
“We’re not out of the pandemic yet,” Kimball said. “We’re working through it, but we’re not out of it yet.”
Tax rates to climb in Fairfield and St. Albans Town
Under state law, only one part of the equation governing local education taxes is decided according to school boards’ approved budgets. The larger equation also incorporates variables ranging from school spending statewide to localized property values.
The equation stems from state law intended to “equalize education funding” in Vermont after a state supreme court decision in the 1990s found Vermont’s education funding system had disadvantaged school districts in communities with lower property values.
In the case of MRUSD, while the district’s spending has increased by less than 3%, a variable related to property sales and appraisals has dramatically shifted tax rates in both Fairfield and in St. Albans Town in particular.
Dubbed the “common level of appraisal,” the variable functions as a ratio comparing properties’ assessed values in a town over three years to what those properties are actually selling for.
In both Fairfield and St. Albans Town, the common level of appraisal (CLA) shows properties in both communities selling for more than their appraised values, meaning their CLAs have both fallen relative to 2020. The result, under Vermont’s education tax formula, is a higher tax rate.
In St. Albans City, meanwhile, the CLA actually rose compared to 2020, meaning property sold for slightly less compared to its assessed value within the city. The effect is that St. Albans City’s education tax rate is expected to barely climb in 2021 under MRUSD’s current budget proposal.
The district is also seeing its “merger incentive,” a tax reduction awarded to school districts who voluntarily merged under Act 46, continue to incrementally shrink according to Vermont’s school consolidation law.
With the 2-cent reduction in the district’s merger incentive and shifting CLAs in its three communities, MRUSD’s localized tax rates are projected to:
Rise by only 1.93 cents to $1.6616 for every $100 of property value in St. Albans City;
Rise by more than 11 cents to $1.5604 for every $100 of property value in St. Albans Town; and
Rise by more than 6 cents to $1.6935 for every $100 of property value in Fairfield.
Vermont’s education tax law also incorporates income sensitivity that typically impacts more than two-thirds of all taxpayers in the Green Mountain State, meaning most taxpayers will likely pay less in education taxes than what’s projected by school districts every year.
Town Meeting Day is scheduled for March 2 in each of the three MRUSD communities.
Voters in St. Albans Town likely have a ballot in hand already, as the town opted earlier this year to mail each of its registered voters a mail-in ballot per a new state law allowing mail-in voting for municipal elections in response to COVID-19.
Ballots need to be returned to St. Albans Town’s offices in St. Albans Bay before March 2. For town voters opting to vote in person, the town’s polling place at Collins Perley will open at 7 a.m. on March 2 and close that evening at 7 p.m.
For Fairfield and St. Albans City residents, polls open March 2 at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. at Fairfield’s town offices and St. Albans City Hall, respectively.