Burlington School District passes $74M budget, seeks bonding measure

Yaw Obeng, Burlington superintendent
Yaw Obeng, the superintendent of the Burlington School District. File photo by Jess Wisloski/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — School district officials said they got an unwelcome surprise Tuesday when they received projections from the state Tax Department showing the common level of appraisal in the city is expected to decrease 2.5 percent.

“It’s not good news for Burlington in terms of the tax impact,” Superintendent Yaw Obeng told school board members at a Tuesday night meeting.

That’s because when the common level of appraisal for property decreases it requires a higher property tax rate to raise the same amount of money, said Nathan Lavery, director of finance for the district.

The result is the $74 million general fund budget officials had spent months crafting, which amounts to a 6.1 percent budget increase in the budget over last year, would mean a 5.8 percent hike in the tax rate.

That would translate to a property tax increase for the owner of a median value Burlington home, or a home valued at $231,500, of an estimated $235 per year.

The Board of School Commissioners responded, after heated debate, by cutting $365,000 from a proposed contingency fund, thereby reducing the property tax rate increase to 5.25 percent. That would amount to an increase for the median home owner of $210 per year.

The budget passed by an 8-4 vote.

Weighing heavily on the debate was concern that the tax increase could imperil a 10-year $19 million deferred maintenance bond that the district also plans to ask voters to approve on the March Town Meeting Day ballot. The bond will cost the owner of a median value Burlington home an average of $96 a year in additional tax over a decade.

“If we exceed the ability of the community pay or their willingness to pay, we lose support for public education and it hurts us in the long run,” said Commissioner Stephanie Seguino, Ward 6, who proposed the reduction.

City Councilor Kurt Wright, R-Ward 4, said during a Monday presentation from school officials that his constituents are tapped out and urged Obeng and the board to “weigh what the needs of the students are with what taxpayers can afford.”

Obeng said he understood that challenge, but said he also hoped it would not be lost on voters that the budgetary conversation has shifted in the last two years. Burlington school’s ended the 2016 fiscal year with a $1.13 million surplus, which allowed the district to set aside $2.12 million for new investments in the upcoming budget.

“We wouldn’t be here talking about investments,” Obeng told the City Council. “We’d be back to where we were in terms of reductions, so the painstaking work that we’ve done in the last couple of years has allowed us to now be having this conversation about the degree of increase.”

“Now we’re having a debate about what we should put in and what we shouldn’t, while a year or two ago it was just what are we taking out, so this is a better conversation,” he added.

The $2.12 million investment includes a $700,000 contingency fund, which commissioners reduced to $335,000. That leaves roughly $1.7 million for expanding preschool programs and hiring librarians, social workers and special education support staff.

Commissioners said they believed it was important to set aside some money in a contingency fund because of uncertainty about federal funding for public education under the incoming Trump administration.

Mayor Miro Weinberger voiced support for the school bond Monday, saying that, “There really is no debate for anyone who has spent any time in the city schools recently that this preventive maintenance is needed.”

Councilor Dave Hartnett, I-North District, said he agreed, adding that he is particularly keen to see safety and accessibility improvements at Burlington High School, which he said are badly needed.

Some of the other top priorities that would be paid for with the bond include expanding pre-kindergarten space at the Ira Allen building on Colchester Avenue to keep up with growing demand, adding four elementary school classrooms and renovations at Edmunds Middle School.

Without the deferred maintenance bond, the district could find itself paying for unplanned emergency repairs that could affect occupancy, or with building conditions that are unsafe, according to district officials.

The board approved the bonding measure at their Tuesday meeting. It will also require City Council approval for the measure to reach the March ballot.

District officials have decided to put off a complete overhaul of the high school with an estimated cost of $27 million in an effort not to overwhelm property taxpayers, who are already facing a city tax increase after approving a municipal infrastructure bond in November.

A major source of uncertainty for the upcoming budget is the district’s unresolved contract negotiations with eight different bargaining units. The largest of those units is the teachers union, which just completed arduous negotiations in October for a one year deal that expires in July.

“Right now we have no information to go on,” Obeng said, adding that he has not received any indication from the bargaining units about what percentage increase they might seek.

Lavery, the finance director, said he’s calculated that for every 1 percent increase in compensation across those eight bargaining units, the budget will need to be increased by $500,000. The $750,000 budgeted for raises would then equal a 1.5 percent increase across the board.

Members of the Burlington parent teacher organization urged the board not to box themselves in by budgeting too little for raises and forcing another heated round of negotiations with teachers.

The number of collective bargaining units is unusually high, according to both Lavery and Obeng, who said it is a holdover from previous district administrations.

The smallest of the units includes just a handful of IT workers, Lavery said. Having to negotiate eight different contracts taxes central office resources, he said.

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  • Re: “That’s because when the common level of appraisal for property decreases it requires a higher property tax rate to raise the same amount of money, said Nathan Lavery, director of finance for the district.”

    This isn’t the bad news. The bad news is that the ‘same amount of money’ doesn’t cover the ever increasing costs to maintain the school. Its disingenuous to say ” [t]he result is 6.1 percent budget increase in the budget over last year and a 5.8 percent hike in the tax rate”. The increase in the school budget has nothing to do with property values and everything to do with the school district spending more money than it did last year.

    If this is increase in spending the case in Vermont’s largest school district, just think what consolidation will bring us.

  • Re: “Commissioners said they believed it was important to set aside some money in a contingency fund because of uncertainty about federal funding for public education under the incoming Trump administration.”

    Voters beware. Now it’s the ‘uncertainty’ of the Trump straw man making your school taxes increase.

    Why take additional taxes now when everything is so uncertain…especially given that school boards can deficit spend any time they choose with taxpayers required to pick up the tab.

    Why? Because school administrators figure a bird in the hand today is worth two in the bush tomorrow. And when they increase costs again next year, it won’t seem to be as high a percentage increase as it otherwise might. It’s called ‘dollar cost averaging’ in the reverse.

    • Paul Richards

      “Because school administrators figure a bird in the hand today is worth two in the bush tomorrow. ” Indeed. It’s easier for them to rubber stamp the union’s demands because they know the taxpayer have essentially no recourse. Meanwhile they continue to build up “deferred maintenance” costs because they are afraid to face the music and put a stop to the demands of the professionally, paid union lawyers.
      No one is willing to address the elephant in the room which is the NEA. Until and unless public sector unions are relegated back to illegal status there will be only a reshuffling of the deck and no real progress. It’s a fundamentally broken system destined for continued failure.

  • Tony Redington

    The question is how this budget fits into the School District 5-year financial and school programs plan, and does this budget assure an increase or decrease in student performance?

  • Tom Pelham

    Non-Burlington residents (and their elected representatives) should be concerned about school spending growth in Burlington. With Act 60/Act 68/Act 46, Vermont’s education property tax system is essentially a statewide tax system and no longer a district property tax system as in the past. Burlington’s increased spending will be spread across statewide education taxes, both residential and non-residential.

    In December, the Tax Commissioner issued projected estimates for increased education tax rates for fiscal 2018. These projections assumed a school spending increase of 3.2% despite continuing declines in student populations statewide.

    Burlington’s projected spending increase is almost twice the Tax Commissioner’s projection. Such higher spending will push tax rates even higher along with the ancillary costs of statewide programs such as income sensitivity.

    • Moshe Braner

      Two questions: how has the number of students in Burlington changed recently, and, isn’t there some sort of penalty (imposed by the state) for large increases in per-student spending?

      • Tom Pelham

        Moshe…the info I have from the Agency of Education is that in 2011 Burlington had 3,928 equalized pupils compared to 3,933 in 2016. In state law there is a provision whereby districts spending more than 121 percent above the statewide average spending per equalized pupil have a surcharge on their local education tax rates based upon the amount of education spending in excess of the 121 percent limit. It would seem that if the above budget put Burlington into this penalty area that it would have been so noted in the article.

        • Moshe Braner

          I thought at some point a rate-of-increase limit was imposed, or at least proposed. If current Burlington per-student spending is low, then perhaps the proposed increase is OK. I don’t have all the data. Note that the “per student spending” is also adjusted based on various considerations, some of which make a big difference in Burlington, e.g., the number of students who need help learning the English language.

          It is still up to the Burlington voters to accept or reject the budget, and that’s as it should be.

          • Paul Richards

            You can reject the budgets until the cows come home but it’s not going to change the NEA’s agenda. There “negotiated” contracts are “non- negotiable” after approval. Any changes required to reduce the budget will come out of the children not the teachers. Because it all about the kids…
            Good luck!

  • Todd Morris

    All bargaining units should accept a 2 year moratorium on salary increases. Many (most?) in the private don’t see annual raises especially in times of needed capital investment by a company (e.g. deferred maintenance) or of shrinking sales (e.g. shrinking enrollment). These yearly increases on top of step increases is a 20th century relic and we are now well into the 21st century.

    • Todd Morris

      Based on the thumbs down I see we have at least 2 BHS staff who feel they should continue to receive salary increases while those footing the bill pick up a 2nd job or choose between medication and heat

  • The audacity of BSD playing the Trump card as the mayor and city councilors rushed to make Burlington a sanctuary city is insulting if not laughable to me as a full-freight taxpayer. As I did in November, I will be voting NO to bonding yet more debt in the Queen City. Vermont needs to revisit its property tax rebate nonsense as well and come up with a paying your fair share plan.

  • Whats another $200 – $250 a year in taxes? We’re really getting our moneys worth…Right?

  • edward letourneau

    The only way this state will ever control education costs is for the state to only pay for basic education, say at the national average of $10,000 per year, and if local districts what to spend more — only the local taxpayers get to vote on it and pay for it. — No other method will stop this madness of step increases for coming through the door, and a raise on top of that.

  • Kai Mikkel Førlie

    Something has to give. We the taxpayers cannot keep absorbing, year after year, these massive school spending increases. I’ve voted against the last ~ten years worth of increases but the majority always approves them. When are my fellow taxpayers going to come to their senses and put an end to this financially unsustainable system? Teachers over and above the minimum number needed have to go. Most administrators have to go. And the state and all residents need to demand on a daily basis that the federal government change its imperialist and corporatocratic priorities and divert war funding and the billions spent on the absurd surveillance state back to the states for education, etc. We can’t keep on like this!

  • Kai Mikkel Førlie

    From a 2014 VT Digger article*:

    “Vermont has the lowest [student/teacher] ratio in the nation, with an average student-to-teacher ratio of 9.4 to 1, according to a 2013 report** from the National Education Association. The national average is 16 to 1. Vermont also has the second highest average spending per pupil rate, $18,571, in the country. (New York State is No. 1.)”


  • Patrick Shank

    My understanding is that Act 46 implemented spending thresholds (Allowable Growth Percentage or “AGP”) intended to keep education spending in check (roughly 2% increase per year for BTV). For FY2017, the BTV school board approved a budget that stayed within the AGP, closing a $2.5M budget deficit to avoid triggering tax penalties under Act 46, which was subsequently tweaked to, among other things, increase AGP by 0.9% and repeal the spending thresholds altogether for FY2018.

    My read here is that the FY2018 budget represents a 6.1% increase (in terms of AGP), which is *triple* the AGP under FY2017. Moreover, if AGP will be roughly 3% for FY2019, BTV will be looking at a cumulative budget increase of about 9% over the FY2017 budget instead of 4% had Act 46 not been revised. Can anyone confirm my understanding here?

    I’d also note that the tax impact as approved by the school board (5.25%) is literally off the charts of what the school board presented to the city council.