Highgate Town Meeting 2019

A Highgate resident speaks during Town Meeting 2019.

SWANTON — While the Missisquoi Valley School District is budgeting for a bolstered $38.6 million in the coming 2021 to 2022 school year, a $2.3 million surplus means taxpayers in Franklin, Highgate and Swanton could be on the hook for less in education spending this year.

Tax rates in all three communities are projected to fall this year, according to Missisquoi Valley School District (MVSD) officials.

According to school officials, the onset of COVID-19 in March and subsequent school closures prompted MVSD officials to cut back on unneeded spending and led to fewer expenses elsewhere.

“We stopped all discretionary spending after March,” MVSD Superintendent Julie Regimbal told the Messenger. “We shut down our schools. People weren’t buying supplies and materials in April.”

“Nobody’s gone without,” she said, “but we didn’t have field trips, we couldn’t have our musical. They’re all smaller things, but they add up.”

In general, school officials said the coming year’s budget would be “conservative,” reflecting uncertainty around COVID-19.

“There were some things we wanted to do, but we wanted to stay conservative,” Regimbal said. “We’re very cognizant our community felt an economic impact from the pandemic.”

MVSD’s budget is by and large the centerpiece to the school’s ballot this upcoming Town Meeting Day.

There are no competitive races listed on the district’s ballots, and the only other article listed, aside from typical Town Meeting Day procedures, asks that, rather than use postcards to notify voters school district reports were available, the district be allowed to use postings online and in newspapers.

Officials said some staff had been added in Franklin and in the district’s high school for the coming year as a result of “efficiencies” found elsewhere in the district’s budgeting.

The Franklin Central School would be seeing the addition of both a part-time arts teacher and a part-time music teacher in the upcoming school year. A part-time school nurse’s position at the elementary school would also be made full-time.

“Franklin, for years, has not been able to offer the same unified arts opportunities as other schools,” Regimbal said. “If we can continue to enhance offerings in all of our schools, we’re going to continue to do that.”

Additional staff at Franklin, where new student enrollments have remained relatively constant in recent years, were partially balanced out by the cutting of a teaching position in Highgate, which again saw fewer enrollments this year.

Missisquoi Valley Union High School has likewise added two positions: an English and language arts interventionist for middle school classes, and a teacher dedicated to students’ personalized learning plans.

The latter role, funded in part through grant dollars, would allow the school to focus more on helping students develop personalized learning plans, an education model placing greater emphasis on student agency and personalized education goals.

Health care costs climb again

Like other area school districts, MVSD is facing financial pressure from the increased cost of health insurance. The district’s business manager, Lora McAllister, estimated more than 80% of the district’s limited increase in spending this year could be connected to health insurance.

“Our increase is basically health care benefits,” McAllister said.

District again looks at facilities

The district is planning to allocate a greater amount of funding to helping maintain its four schools, growing a budget line for construction costs from $235,000 to $335,000 in the coming year.

According to McAllister, the individual school districts that were consolidated into MVSD had “historically deferred maintenance” to help balance school spending, something districts statewide have wrestled with.

While voters in one of the district’s member communities had, in recent years, approved a bond for supporting facilities work at the Highgate Elementary School, there were still more general facilities concerns the district hoped to address more proactively.

McAllister said a conditions assessment was now also underway elsewhere in the school district.

“That process is literally just starting,” McAllister said.

Greater funding for building improvements in MVSD’s budget had been largely offset by reduced spending elsewhere, according to McAllister.

Federal funding helps cover COVID-19

While school accommodations for both remote and in-person learning amid COVID-19 has been expensive, many of those costs are set to be absorbed through the slews of federal money made available through the pandemic.

According to McAllister, MVSD has applied for more than $2.7 million in federal aid between two rounds of pandemic relief for schools. Other federal dollars have been made available, as well.

Elementary schools in the Swanton-based MVSD have gradually reopened to in-person learning for students up through sixth grade. The district’s middle and high schoolers, meanwhile, have largely remained in a hybrid model of in-person and remote schooling, per state public health guidelines.

Tax rates decline in MVSD’s three towns

While school officials stressed during an interview with the Messenger that many of these measurements were preliminary, awaiting both a final audit and the state to set a tax yield, taxpayers are projected to see their towns’ education tax rates tumble this year.

Franklin, Highgate and Swanton were all projected to see tax rates fall thanks largely to the application of the previously mentioned $2.3 million surplus. Under the district’s current budget proposal:

Franklin’s homestead tax rate would fall from 2020’s $1.4750 to 2021’s $1.3945;

Highgate’s tax rate would fall from $1.3890 to $1.3758 in 2021; and

Swanton residents would see their homestead tax rate fall from $1.4183 to $1.3621.

Polls open in the school district’s three towns at 7 a.m. on March 2 and close at 7 p.m. that evening.

Voters in Franklin and Highgate will find their polls at the Franklin Town Hall and at the Highgate Sports Arena, respectively. Polls can be found in Swanton at the Swanton Village Complex, where municipal elections are typically held.

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