Home News and Features Montpelier Roxbury School Taxes Could Rise Significantly; Future of Roxbury School Raised

Montpelier Roxbury School Taxes Could Rise Significantly; Future of Roxbury School Raised

Roxbury Village School students practice cooperative learning before heading to the woods on a recent ‘Forest Friday’ outdoor learning day. Photo by Carla Occaso.
The Montpelier Roxbury Public School board meeting on Nov. 1 covered looming budget pressures for fiscal year 2025, with over a dozen attendees and 65 people watching on Zoom. The focus was a new law, Act 127, which school officials said creates the potential for an over $3,000 increase in non-income-sensitized homestead taxes on a $300,000 house and would also sharply boost the income-sensitized school tax rate.

“Tonight is really just absorbing the situation we’re in,” said Jim Murphy, board chairperson. “I also want to stress that this is something we have very limited control over.”

“The information in tonight’s presentation is very hard. It’s hard to hear, it’s hard to provide you,” said Superintendent Libby Bonesteel.

[Information conveyed to the district by the state education department after the meeting suggests the school district may have a chance to avoid an extreme tax increase next year, although regular 5% tax rate increases may still be in the cards for the next few years, with a potentially much bigger increase possible five years from now, Bonesteel told The Bridge after the meeting. For the latest information, see accompanying article.]

The budget pressures and a planned review of the district’s facilities led to a discussion at the Nov. 1 meeting about Roxbury Village School, where per-pupil education costs are much higher than at the Union School. Roxbury representatives on the board and Roxbury residents attending the meeting expressed fears that the small Roxbury school could be closed, although other school board members said that was unlikely in the near term.

What is Act 127?

Act 127, passed by the Legislature in 2022 but effective next school year, updates how students are weighted, “which is a very important part of our funding formula in terms of how much we get from the state versus how much the town is asked to pay,” said Murphy.

Student “weights” are used to calculate the equalized pupil count, a theoretical number designed to reflect what it costs to educate a population of students. 

When the act was presented, “I think we all believed in it in spirit and concept” regarding educational equity, said board member Kristen Getler of Roxbury. Multilingual students, poverty, district population density, and school size are weighted in FY25, helping districts like Burlington and Winooski and rural districts. “It’s a good law,” Bonesteel said.

“The state and the Agency of Education went through a long study process with UVM to come to these weights about what was fair,” Bonesteel said. “Our school district will be disadvantaged in this,” as the new weights mean fewer equalized pupils in the MRPS district.

“This is not a state-wide angst. … some districts are very happy with the results of this weighting, and some are in our position,” said board parliamentarian Jill Remick.

Act 127 also states that the equalized residential tax rate annual increase will be capped at 5% from FY25 through FY29, with the cap going away in FY30. The tax cap is only available if spending per equalized pupil increases less than 10% from the previous year. If spending per equalized pupil increases more than 10% in a year, “the Secretary of Education can look at our budget and what we’ve spent to determine if it’s excessive spending or not. Whether or not that will happen is up to a big debate,” said Bonesteel.

The most important part of the change, Bonesteel said, is “If the secretary determines that it’s excessive, then our taxpayers will be on the hook. The cap goes away,” and the taxpayers pay it all. 

A Stripped Back Budget Increase

The budget presentation forecasted how Act 127 could affect FY25 and had to include variables that are not yet officially set in stone. “The budgeting process is always filled with assumptions,” said Murphy. “Historically we’ve done a pretty good job.”

Bonesteel and Business Manager Christina Kimball calculated that a projected $2 million increase to the budget in FY25 would cause education spending per equalized pupil to increase above 10%, because of the new weighting and other factors, so the Secretary of Education would have reason to review the budget, and could deem it excessive. [See accompanying article; the “trigger” level may actually be $2.4 million]. Two million represents a nearly 7% increase in the budget, Kimball said.

If the state review was triggered and the district spending was found excessive, “the projected residential tax rate with no cap and after CLA could be very large for Montpelier, it could be 108%, or a $3,650 increase on a $300,000 house. In Roxbury, it would increase 84.21%, or $3,290 on a $300,000 home. It’s significant if the Secretary would come in and determine our spending excessive. And that’s a big if, right? That’s a gamble,” said Bonesteel.

“For some perspective, the increase on a $300,000 home last year was like $280,” said board member Emma Bay-Hansen.

The $2 million is “the cost that we have already committed to,” said Murphy. “We as a board are very proud of the raise we gave teachers,” he said, adding “it was probably very long overdue, especially as we saw the heroic efforts they did during COVID.”

Bonesteel also said the budget includes 4.5 full-time-equivalent employees funded originally through COVID-era federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) grant funds that are no longer available. The grant-funded positions are now included in the teacher contract and will be kept, Bonesteel said.

New Track Money is on the Table

The $1.9 million for the high school track is still set aside in the budget. “We haven’t made any decisions,” said Murphy, but that money “is going to be a big part of the discussion to alleviate this burden.”

The Fate of Roxbury Village School

“I’m from Roxbury, I’ve lived there for 50 years,” said Tom Frazier, describing the Roxbury Village School as “a town soul.”

“I feel like this board, because you have to come up with a savings of X amount of dollars, are going throw Roxbury under the proverbial school bus to save that money,” said Frazier.

“It is extremely difficult to run a school with 40 kids,” said Roxbury school board representative Rhett Williams. “So, when you look at the scores in Roxbury, it’s going to stand out. What would happen if those kids were at Union? It would just dissolve.”

“And it would look great from an academic achievement perspective. It’s the lowest hanging fruit, for a number of reasons, but if we pick it, it kills a community,” said Williams. “We’re going to talk about killing Roxbury Village School (RVS) irreparably. It’s never going to come back. In two months, when we’re talking about dealing with a problem that is prolonged over five years.”

“In the time of the merger, my understanding was … that we would never close that school based on budget alone,” Getler, also from Roxbury, said. 

Affirming his support of RVS, Murphy said “I have no desire to close it …,” but to get a clear sense of the situation, “that’s one of the things we’re going to have to talk about.”

“I think our legislature needs to be aware that the act may have very unintended consequences,” said Getler.

“Let’s see a few paths,” said Mia Moore. “How do the numbers play out,” she said. “I think that is the logical next step after today.”

“I can only speak for myself, but I would not be interested in supporting a budget that would close a school this quickly,” said Bay-Hansen, who represents Montpelier on the board.

Phil Dodd contributed to this article.