This year, Whitingham taxpayers are facing a significant increase – about 20 cents – in their homestead education tax.
Board members explained how a number of circumstances conspired to boost the tax increase above that which had been expected as a result of consolidation. In addition to typical budget increases connected to salaries and benefits, Taylor said Whitingham’s share of the total budget increased by 2% based on enrollment. Whitingham students now account for 44% of the student population, and 44% of the budget. Whitingham’s share of the students and the budget has increased since the two towns consolidated their middle and high schools in 2004. At that time, Whitingham students made up about 40% of the school population.
But one of the biggest issues facing Whitingham is a change in their common level of appraisal (CLA). The common level of appraisal is a state-supplied figure, based on real estate sales in the town, that is intended to “equalize” school tax rates between Vermont towns. As real estate prices go up or down, the CLA figure is used to calculate the increase or decrease in the school tax rate.
According to Taylor, Whitingham’s CLA dropped from 105.8% to 100.2%, resulting in an increase in the town’s school tax rate of about 9 cents. Board members said the change was mainly due to a change in the valuation of TransCanada’s property.
For Wilmington taxpayers, the state’s CLA figure was good news this year; their CLA rose from 102% to about 105.5%. Wilmington’s school tax rate is down by about two cents, not only because of the change in the CLA but also thanks to a drop in their share of the budget. Wilmington students will make up about 56% of the school population in 2014, down by 2%.
But board members said they’re expecting Whitingham will get some relief in the following year’s budget. Next year, board members said, Whitingham will see significant savings from the consolidation of the middle and high schools at the Whitingham facility.
“Right now, Wilmington is, in essence, realizing the benefits of the shared elementary (in the 2014 budget),” Taylor said. “But the bulk of the savings will come from the consolidated middle/high school, and we’ll see a larger decrease in the tax rate on the Whitingham side next year.”
In an effort to reduce the tax impact of the 2014 budget, board members cut $292,000 from the first draft of the budget earlier in the budget process. Board members said the savings came from several sources, including a reduction in a number of small line items in the budget. But they also cut a foreign language program at the elementary school, which they said wasn’t vital to the education program.
Board member Dwight Williams said there was also a reduction in salary increases. The board is in contract negotiations with teachers’ union representatives, but he said it was the board’s position that benefits are part of compensation. He pointed out that there is projected to be a14% increase in health insurance benefits included in the budget. “That’s part of compensation, and we couldn’t be as generous with our budget salary increases,” he said.
Whitingham resident Josh Lemaire asked if the $292,000 in cuts were part of $442,908 in savings the board claimed in savings from the elementary consolidation. Williams said it was.
“So that’s not really from consolidation, then, it’s from the cuts,” Lemaire said.
Taylor said some, but not all, of the cuts came from the elementary school. But he said the towns were already getting benefit from “efficiencies” from the consolidation, and he expects there will be more when the middle/high school consolidation is completed. “I think there will be efficiencies we don’t even realize now,” he said.
Lemaire said something would have to change soon. “I think it’s right there on the edge of having to throw a monkey wrench in,” he said, “when you expect an 11-cent increase (in the tax rate) and get a 20-cent increase.”
Without a doubt,” agreed Williams. “And for those not under income sensitivity, about 20% of taxpayers, that’s going to hurt.”
Board member Seth Boyd said the Whitingham School Board is working with the Whitingham Selectboard and TransCanada. “We’re looking, as a town, to see what other revenues we have to mediate this situation,” he said. “The town has appealed the CLA, and TransCanada is helping us fight this situation.”
Because the new consolidated school budget that will be voted by Australian ballot Thursday includes all the school expenditures in each town, voters won’t have a town school budget to consider on Town Meeting day. Boyd said this year voters in both towns will have a chance to vote on an article to move future budget votes from its current mid-January date to Town Meeting day. He said the mid-January date was chosen as part of the middle and high school consolidation in 2004. “We had to have the Twin Valley budgets approved before we could approve the town (school) budgets,” Boyd said. “It has been a huge stress on us to get the budgets out at this time. School just gets started and it’s already budget season. If we move it back to Town Meeting day, we’ll have better numbers from the state, and more accurate information.”
Whitingham and Wilmington voters are voting on the budget today, Thursday, January 17. The Deerfield Valley News will post the results as soon as they’re available.