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Second Draft Budget and Strategy for MRPS

Photo by John Lazenby.
A second draft of the fiscal year 2025 budget was presented at the Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools board meeting on Dec. 20. This budget season has been heavily affected by Act 127, meant to improve student equity by changing the state school funding formula, but also setting up Montpelier for potentially huge tax increases. 

The board has been hashing out budget cuts to keep under a state-imposed 10% limit on increases in spending  per “weighted” pupil. As the budget season has progressed, it has moved to a more manageable, but still difficult position, said Jim Murphy, board chairperson.

Superintendent Libby Bonesteel said the current draft comes in at less than a 9% increase. Being under 10% guarantees the district can leverage a 5% cap in the increase in the residential tax rate, with the rest of the money made up by the education fund — at least for now.

“If we were not capped, we’d have a 20.45% increase in our equalized residential tax rate. So we have about 15% that the ed fund is going to have to make up for us,” said Christina Kimball, business manager.

However, even with the Montpelier-Roxbury tax rate increase limited to 5%, Montpelier tax bills could increase by a much greater amount because of the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) adjustment, which is applied to assessed values. The expected big drop in the CLA could mean increases in Montpelier tax bills will be in the 19.4% range. Roxbury bills are not expected to rise nearly as much, due to a smaller CLA adjustment.

The 5% cap lasts until FY29, and although as Kimball said long-term estimates are hard to provide, the board is planning strategically.

The FY30 “Tax Cliff”

Board member Scott Lewins asked if the board is “leaving money on the table by keeping our increase lower than 9%, when we can go as high as 9.99% and not pay any difference in taxes.”

The tax cliff from FY29 to FY30 could be a 20-cent jump as the cap goes away, assuming a typical $2 million total budget increase each year, said Jake Feldman, board member.

However, Murphy noted the more they rely on the 5% cap, the bigger the tax cliff in FY30. If the board spends less for five years, the FY29 to FY30 jump will be smaller, he said.

Being this far under the 10% limit also gives the board wiggle room to make decisions during the next budget seasons, Murphy said

“The responsible thing to do is, like, gradually get yourself to a place where you’re not looking at a cliff,” said Feldman.

Staff Cuts

Proposed staffing cuts include a currently unfilled position and a previously known reduction in force, and also cuts to two currently held part-time positions (each 0.2 full time equivalent (FTE)). Those part-time positions amount to around $45,000 to $50,000 in cuts, said Bonesteel.

“I’m surprised to hear that we wouldn’t want to revisit the budget numbers of specific cuts that we were talking about now that we’ve gotten a little bit of good news,” said Jill Remick, parliamentarian.

“I know all of these cuts are hard,” said Murphy. But if you say what’s $25,000 in $800,000 and keep deciding against it, then “suddenly, you’ve lost your cuts,” he said.

Murphy said the administration has worked to make sure “these are not the things that are undermining the kind of core mission that the board has set out for the district.”

Morgan Lloyd, a fourth-grade teacher at Union Elementary School and parent of two students, asked “whether there are different cuts that could impact students and mission less. Basically, positions that are not student facing.”

“All of these, when you burrow down into them, someone’s getting impacted. And that’s awful,” said Murphy.

Health insurance cost increases, the common level of appraisal, and strain on the education fund from many school districts are unknowns that will affect future budgets, said board members. The summer’s flood made enrollment predictions difficult, said Bonesteel.

“There is a lot of uncertainty. I don’t think anyone has the next five years figured out,” said Murphy.

Track Money Unencumbered, A Quarter Kept

At its Dec. 13 meeting, the board moved to unencumber $1.5 million of the $1.9 million that had been set aside to renovate Montpelier High School’s gravel track, leaving $400,000 for the track program and facility improvements.

The $1.5 million will give the board more leeway to strategize cuts over the next five years.

Nathan Suter, the middle school track and field coach, said “I just want us to maintain the facility that we’ve got … as a fallback position from committing $1.9 million.” He gave examples of replacing the track’s inside curb and buying hurdles and pole vault equipment.

“I think everyone on the board who voted for the track still supports the idea of a track. We’re just in a different financial situation with different uncertainties,” said Murphy.

“I’ve made some of my most meaningful connections through running, through my sports,” said Miriam Serota-Winston, student representative on the board and a track athlete. “Our track is sort of a joke at this point, and it shouldn’t be,” she said.

Responding to discussion about facilities and student achievement, Remick said “I don’t agree with the characterization that it’s track versus students, it’s very much track is students, and it’s actually a huge number of our students.”

For more information, see the district website, mrpsvt.org/budget. Board members also encouraged citizens to send them emails for more budget information. The next board meeting and budget presentation is scheduled for Jan. 3, 2024, and will include  a public forum on the budget.