Jen Carr, chair of the Marlboro School Board, explained that the increase comes as the result of a combination of factors originating primarily outside the school district. Mandated, nondiscretionary items required by the state and federal governments contributed to the majority of the increase, with a handful of board-controlled items also contributing.
“One thing we were challenged by this year in putting together the school budget was called the excess spending threshold, which is a limit that we can’t go over in spending,” said Carr. “We had quite a number of costs that boosted our budget that we can’t really change.” For every dollar in spending that exceeds the threshold, she explained, the school district would have to pay back $2 to the state.
Contributing to the increased budget but outside the school board’s control was additional funding needed for special education, high school tuition, health care expenses, and a new state-mandated yearly audit.
The new auditing requirement stipulates that an outside auditing company, not a town auditor, must review the school’s financial records every year, but the district must supply the funding, amounting to $8,000. Previously, such audits were required only every three years. Voters declined to halt monthly internal inspections by Marlboro town auditors.
“This is the effect of a series of decisions that the state is making,” said T. Hunter Wilson. “To require a town the size of Marlboro to pay $8,000 every year is a big penalty.”
Special education costs mandated by federal law also comprised a significant amount of the budget increase. “You’re breaking the law as a school if you don’t locate and accommodate your students who learn differently,” said Sophie Dennis, “but the federal government is not paying its bill. Taxpayers are making up the difference.”
Carr cited continued funding for school programs such as the lunch program, Spanish, and poetry as also contributing to the increase. In addition, funding for additional teaching and library staff also raised costs. “We clearly heard the message that our community values stability in those programs,” she said. Carr estimated that these costs made up about 15% of the increase.
To help fund the budget and avoid surpassing the excess spending threshold, Marlboro School teachers will not receive a pay increase, an increased cost of living adjustment (COLA) or a step raise this year. “We are being penalized in the sense that this budget does not include raises for teachers,” said Carr, “which is something I’ve never seen since I’ve been on the school board. I am not happy that we did this. We kept our spending under the excess spending threshold mainly through cooperation with our teachers. I can’t say enough about the work they do. I don’t feel that’s what we should be doing right now.”
Board member Will Brook-deBock said, “The board is convening a group that has teacher representation and financial representation from the supervisory union to look at the step scale, if it’s transparent enough, and anything we can do.”
Referring to the tax increase precipitated by the budget, voter Dan MacArthur said “there’s a punitive aspect to this as well, for people whose incomes are below a certain point. You get a cap on the amount of money you can spend on property taxes for your house and two acres. And that cap moves up as your school district spends more. It means basically pitting lower-income people within the town against their school directors.” With the new budget, the cap increased from 2.7% of income to 3.11%.
Several factors beyond the school budget determine the local tax rate, among them the town’s common level of appraisal (CLA), the number of equalized students at the school, and statewide property tax rates. “We are not actually capable of level-funding this budget because of things we have to pay for,” said Carr, “but if somehow we were capable of level-funding this budget we would still see a 13% increase in our taxes” as a result of these other factors.
At Town Meeting, voters had an opportunity to question Rep. Richard Marek about the state-mandated increases to the budget. “What steps do we take to begin to push back?” town auditor Keeley Eastley asked regarding the $8,000 audit.
“There’s been a lot of embezzlement cases in both schools and towns and private businesses,” Marek responded. “The quick, easy fix was, ‘let’s require an audit.’ I don’t know that that makes a lot of sense. There are people pushing that issue,” he said, referring to efforts in the legislature to repeal the measure. “I would be happy to vote for it. I don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense to require that.”
“The issue in this room this morning was that it’s an unfunded mandate,” said Malcolm Moore.
“I think they didn’t think through the impact of not paying for it for small schools,” said Marek. “When you drop this into the budget of Brattleboro or Burlington or Winooski, it’s immaterial. When you drop it into the budgets of the types of districts we have down here, it is material. It was not a good decision.”
Marek stated that hand-drafted letters are the best method of getting into contact with state legislators and the governor.
The meeting also marked the end of Augusta Bartlett’s three terms on the school board. Running unopposed for her seat was Wayne Kermenski.