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Many Towns Face Big Dilemma With School Budgets

VPR/ Bob Kinzel
Brian Ricca, Montpelier's school Superintendent, says school budgets are rising slower than school property taxes.

A number of towns this year are facing a difficult situation with their local school budgets.

The budgets are rising by relatively small amounts. But property taxes are increasing by double digits because of a number of other provisions in Act 68, Vermont’s school financing law.

A microcosm of the problem can be seen in the city of Montpelier, where factors forcing a potentially large tax increase are also playing out in dozens of communities in the state.

Brian Ricca is the city’s school superintendent, and here’s the problem that he's facing: The Montpelier School Board has approved a 2.3 percent increase in its budget for next year, but it will take a 13 percent increase in school taxes to make this happen.

In addition to the local budget increase, there are three key reasons why. The statewide property tax rate is going up almost 8 percent, and the number of students in Montpelier is declining so the school system gets less money from the state.  There’s also a need to reappraise property and this leads to a higher tax burden on most of those properties.

Add it all up and you get a 13 percent increase in property taxes. Even if Montpelier had a level-funded school budget next year, property taxes would still go up by 11 cents, or 7.5 percent. Ricca says this situation puts many communities in a bind.

“That’s the hardest part for us. We worked really hard to bring in a budget that is reasonable from the portion that we control,” said Ricca. “It is not an extravagant budget.”

"Something has to be different in the next handful of years" Montpelier School Superintendent Brian Ricca on the forces affecting the proposed school budget for next year.

Despite these problems, Ricca says the basic principles of Act 68 still make sense. But he thinks that the other factors that affect school tax rates get overlooked when the debate centers on higher tax burdens.

“It’s hard to have to say that to the voters of Montpelier who are seeing over the course of the last few years a total of about 25 percent increase in their property taxes,” Ricca said.

While he doesn’t have a plan to change the current system, Ricca is sure that things have to change.

“Something has to be different in the next handful of years and I don’t know what it is,” said Ricca. “I’m not trying to pass the buck, I’m saying I want to be part of the conversation, but something’s going to have to give.”

Phil Dodd is a Montpelier resident and a member of the group, Vibrant and Affordable Montpelier. The organization was formed to study the city’s municipal budget, but Dodd says the time has come to focus on the school budget as well.

“People in Montpelier want good schools and the parents are very supportive of the school system. We’ve got good administration and teachers in place,” said Dodd. “On the other side I think it’s appropriate to look at the state system, and I know the legislators are doing that now, to think about changes there that might reduce this burden.”

And Dodd says lawmakers might be able to learn something by looking at New Hampshire.

“The spending per pupil in Vermont is 35 percent higher than in New Hampshire and yet results on achievement tests are very similar – they’re both good,” said Dodd. "So somehow if New Hampshire is getting similar results for a lot less money then that may be something to look at.”

Key lawmakers say it’s unlikely that the Legislature will make big changes in the state’s school financing system this session, but that could change if a large number of school budgets are defeated on Town Meeting Day.

(This story was updated Feb. 4 at 10:55 am to reflect new information from Superintendent Ricca. He says even if the Montpelier school board level funded the budget, taxes would go up 11 cents, not 11 percent.) 

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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