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.