Richford/Enosburg schools (copy)

The fronts of Enosburg Falls Middle & High School and Richford Jr. & Sr. High School are shown.

RICHFORD — The two districts making up the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union (FNESU) have both budgeted for what school officials say is an assumed return to “normalcy” in the coming school year.

Education spending is budgeted to grow for both Enosburgh and Richford’s unified school district and in the larger Northern Mountain Valley school district, due in part to a greater need for paraeducator support and climbing health insurance costs.

According to the supervisory union’s business manager, Morgan Daybell, both districts’ budgets were crafted around school returning to normal after the past year saw education disrupted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“We really built the FY22 budgets assuming things would be back to normal,” Daybell told the Messenger in a recent interview.

While education spending more generally has climbed marginally in both school districts, other variables used by state officials to determine local education taxes have shifted property taxes in some towns and led to virtually no impact in taxes in others.

Both school districts are expecting to add paraeducator supports based on the expected needs of FNESU’s students, according to Daybell, and additional staff and the addition of a previously approved school bond in Sheldon have likewise influenced spending in the NMV school district.

The Enosburgh-Richford Unified Union School District, meanwhile, has also floated additional articles establishing a capital fund for school improvements and allowing for the purchase of a small sliver of land near the Richford Jr./Sr. High School.

Enosburgh-Richford Unified Union School District’s budget grows

Voters in the towns of Enosburgh and Richford are being asked this year to approve an almost $20 million school budget to operate the town’s consolidated school district.

At $19.9 million, the school budget proposed this year represents more than a 3% increase in school spending from the year prior, something Daybell said stems in part from both additional paraeducator staff and higher health care costs affecting school budgeting statewide.

This year marks the first year where health care benefits for school staff were determined through statewide negotiations, meaning local officials had little say in an increase Daybell estimated to be worth more than $240,000.

“There’s not a lot of flexibility the [school board] has on those costs,” Daybell said.

The budget sheets presented to voters also show typical allocations listed in the school budget shifting between pots, as items like the district’s after school programming are now budgeted under lines directly associated with the wider supervisory union.

While a substantial increase in districtwide spending was connected to tuition for Enosburgh’s Cold Hollow Career Center, the school district’s technical center.

Historically, the district’s budgeting wouldn’t report Cold Hollow’s tuition costs and revenue for students from within the district, meaning the increase reported this year is more of a bookkeeping shakeup than an actual swelling in education spending.

The district is also reporting tuition revenues from Enosburgh and Richford students, immediately offsetting the higher education costs reportedly connected to Enosburgh and Richford students attending the technical center and likely negating their tuition’s impact on local education taxes.

While the budgeted increase in school spending was small – only around 3% from the previous year – changes in a variable used to determine education tax rates under Vermont law mean taxpayers in Enosburgh will see an 4-cent increase in their tax rate this year, while Richford’s tax rates remain flat.

Both towns were affected by a shift in what is known as the “common level of appraisal,” a variable comparing assessed property values to their actual market prices and used by the state to more equitably set local education tax rates.

In both Enosburgh and Richford, the common level of appraisal (CLA) were expected to fall, meaning homes in both communities were, in the case of Enosburgh, selling above their assessed value and, in the case of Richford, selling for prices closer to their assessed values.

With the CLA falling in both towns, education tax rates in Enosburgh were expected to grow from $1.33 for every $100 of assessed value to $1.37 for every $100 of assessed value. In Richford, tax rates remained functionally flat at $1.18 for every $100 of assessed property value.

Because education taxes in Vermont also incorporate income sensitivity, around two-thirds of all taxpayers in Vermont typically pay less than the education tax rate listed by school budgets every year.

Despite the higher level of spending, ERUUSD’s equalized per pupil spending rate of $14,677 falls short of both the Franklin County and statewide averages of $15,445 and $17,146, respectively.

ERUUSD also looks at land purchase, capital fund

Alongside more typical Town Meeting Day fare, ERUUSD’s school board is also asking voters this March to authorize budgeting $500,000 of surplus funding from the previous school year for a capital fund. The district is also asking for a $7,000 land purchase near Richford’s high school.

According to ERUUSD’s school board chair, Polly Rico, the school board’s proposed capital budget would help support improving the district’s four schools and technical center, and address maintenance issues the district has historically deferred due to tight budgeting.

“It takes a certain amount of money to keep our buildings and our grounds and our campuses in good shape, so we felt that this money would allow us to do some projects we’ve really been kicking the can on,” Rico said during a recent informational meeting.

The $7,000 property purchase near Richford’s high school, meanwhile, was described by the school board’s chair as a way to create a buffer between the high school and nearby residences.

“This came to us as an opportunity, and we felt that it was beneficial because it is creating more of this buffer between residential and school areas,” Rico said. “We felt it was advantageous for us to do that.”

Polls open in Enosburgh and Richford on March 2 at 10 a.m. and close that evening at 7 p.m.

Northern Mountain Valley’s budget rises

On Town Meeting Day this year, voters in the Northern Mountain Valley school district are being asked to approve a $17.8 million school budget for the 2021 and 2022 school year, a roughly $900,000 increase from what voters in the consolidated district approved last year.

According to the supervisory union’s business manager, rising costs in NMV were largely attributed to higher tuition costs and to the addition of needed paraeducators and nursing staff.

NMV’s four schools – spread between the towns of Bakersfield, Berkshire, Montgomery and Sheldon – are all elementary and middle schools, meaning they have to send high school-aged students to other school districts.

Students from NMV’s four schools typically attend high school in Enosburgh, Richford or St. Albans, though some leave the county for schools in nearby Chittenden, Orleans and Lamoille counties.

According to Daybell, the school district is sending a larger class of graduated eighth graders to nearby high schools this year. Meanwhile, a far smaller class of NMV students are graduating from those high schools, meaning tuition costs for NMV are projected to spike significantly this year.

The district’s budget attributes more than $380,000 of this year’s increase in education spending to higher tuition costs, according to Daybell.

NMV, like ERUUSD, is also budgeting for additional paraeducators, something Daybell said was largely “needs-based” and could vary “year-to-year” depending on those needs.

According to Daybell, part of the greater need for paraeducators could be attributed to the effects of COVID-19 on students. NMV, like the rest of FNESU, reopened with a blend of in-person and remote learning, and recently temporarily shifted to fully remote learning after COVID-19 surged locally.

The district has also opted to make nursing positions in its Bakersfield and Montgomery schools full time positions after using grant funds to do so during the past school year.

This year will also see the first payment for a school bond Sheldon voters approved two years ago at around the time the Sheldon town school district was consolidated into NMV. Improvements afforded through the bond were finished this past year, according to Daybell.

Like Enosburgh, three of the four towns making up NMV saw their tax rates rise partially in response to a falling common level of appraisal.

Under the budget proposed by NMV’s school board:

The local education tax rate in Bakersfield is expected to climb by more than 3 cents to $1.47 for every $100 in assessed property value;

Montgomery’s local education tax rate is expected to grow by more than 3 cents to $1.35 for every $100 of assessed property value; and

Sheldon’s education tax rate was expected to climb by 4 cents to roughly $1.45 for every $100 in assessed property value.

The Town of Berkshire, meanwhile, is expected to see its localized taxes fall this year, with a climbing CLA translating to a tax rate roughly 1 cent below what local taxpayers would have seen from last year’s approved school budget.

As of current projections, Berkshire taxpayers can expect to pay roughly $1.35 for every $100 of assessed property value for education this year.

Because education taxes in Vermont also incorporate income sensitivity, around two-thirds of all taxpayers in Vermont typically pay less than the education tax rate listed by school budgets every year.

Polling places open on March 2 at 7 a.m. in Sheldon and at 10 a.m. in Bakersfield, Berkshire and Montgomery. Polls close in all four communities at 7 p.m. that evening.

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