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Average School Tax Increases Stay Below Inflation

Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools Superintendent Libby Bonesteel and School Board Chairman Jim Murphy listen to a budget discussion at a board meeting January 15, 2020. Photo by Tom Brown

Montpelier’s education property tax rate would rise 8.4 cents under the school district’s proposed budget for next year, but the reason has less to do with spending and more to do with the city’s hot real estate market.

School officials project a residential tax rate of $1.730 for FY21, up from $1.646 in the current year’s budget. That amounts to an increase of $169 in property taxes on a home valued at $200,000.

School officials say that 5.4 cents of that tax rate increase is based on a state formula that compares a city’s assessed property value with actual real estate sales over a two-year period. Based on that equation, Montpelier’s property valuation is 86.86 percent of the market value of a property, down from 89.67 percent in FY20. The rate has been falling for several years as homes consistently sell for more than their assessed value. That trend is expected to continue, triggering a state-mandated reappraisal in the next few years, city officials have said.

The state formula, known as common level of appraisal (CLA), essentially increases a town’s education tax rate to reach 100 percent of market value. So, school officials argue, the bulk of the increase in tax rate is attributed to the decline in CLA. A comparatively low CLA doesn’t change the amount of property taxes needed to pay for schools, but is does skew the rise in tax rate. In other words, if Montpelier’s assessments were closer to 100 percent, the tax rate would be proportionally lower.

The Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools overall budget request ($25,324,090) is up 4.68 percent over last year, and per pupil spending is up 3.77 percent to $16,967, budget figures show.

Superintendent Libby Bonesteel and district Business Manager Grant Geisler said the budget includes no frills and that the district has been consistent in holding the increase in per pupil spending below inflation in recent years. School Board member Andrew Stein produced a spreadsheet showing that the overall increase in per pupil spending is 9.55 percent since 2015, compared to an 11.2 percent rise in the Consumer Price Index, a measure of inflation, over the same period.

“This is a budget that prioritizes our needs,” Bonesteel said. “There’s not any fluff in there, nothing razzle-dazzle. It’s what we need to have the best influence on our kids as we are continuing to build their systems.”

Montpelier’s per pupil spending is in the middle of the statewide rankings, and is below the spending levels of Washington County districts such as Harwood and U-32, state statistics show.

“Libby and her team have done a good job of identifying where there needs to be a build-out and doing that in a careful way,” School Board Chairman Jim Murphy said. “There’s an emphasis on building restorative practices focused on social and behavioral issues, and for the first time we have a solid plan for investment in our buildings.”

About 70 percent of Vermont property taxpayers also qualify for assistance through the state’s income sensitivity program in which the state pays a portion of the tax owed directly to the municipality based on the property owners’ household income (eligible income is $138,250 or less for 2019 tax year).

Additional Personnel

The FY21 budget calls for the addition of a full-time seventh- and eighth-grade teacher, which officials said is required by an increase in class size. It also includes a full-time behavior position at Main Street Middle School, as well as three team coaches, a spelling team program, and a fall musical, all at the middle school.

The budget also calls for adding a half-time pre-K position at Union Elementary that would expand the current Head Start teacher to a full-time district employee, and a 0.2 librarian position at Roxbury Village School.

Positions added at the high school include a 0.4 fine arts position to meet student needs; a half-time guidance assistant; a half-time library assistant; and an additional boys basketball coach.

This is the second budget season for Bonesteel and the third since Montpelier merged with Roxbury. She said her priorities are for addressing the increasing emotional and behavioral needs of students and planning a systematic approach to facilities maintenance.

“Middle school is a time when kids are making some choices that are questionable because their brains are developing and the staff need some support in working with kids who are making questionable choices,” she said. “It’s important to have someone with different skills and expertise levels than we currently have. The high school and UES have that position, so it’s an equity situation across our buildings.

“We are not getting the support we need from mental health agencies, so we have to build it ourselves,” she said. “We don’t have a choice in that it’s critical for the safety and security for all of our students and staff. Kids are coming in with different challenges right now and we need to have the expertise on staff to work with those challenges and move in a different direction.”

The budget also includes $270,000 in capital expenses. Although it is voted on as a separate ballot item on Town Meeting Day, it’s approval is incorporated in the tax rate figures mentioned above.

The state has yet to set the variable used for determining the number of equalized pupils for each district in Vermont. That complex calculus could have a slight effect on the budget proposal if it varies significantly from the school district’s estimates.

School Board Seats Open

It will be an unusually crowded ballot this year as five school board seats will be filled (one of those in Roxbury). The reason is that two appointments were made to replace board members who resigned, and elections will be held to complete those terms.

In Montpelier, Mara Iverson was appointed to replace Rebecca Bowen and said she will seek election to the remainder of Bowen’s term (one year). In Roxbury, Gerri Huck is running to complete the last two years of Lisa Frost’s term.

Two incumbent board members, Michele Braun and Tina Muncy, will not seek reelection in March, but board chair Murphy is running for another term. Candidates have until January 27 to submit the signatures needed to appear on the Town Meeting Day ballot.

This article was updated on January 27, 2020, to correct the percentage of Vermonters who receive property tax relief from income sensitivity..