The Milton Town School District’s proposed $29.4 million fiscal year 2019 budget is a lean .88 percent overall increase from the current year.

The $29,423,539 proposal will create a 2.98 percent increase on residents’ tax bills, district documents show.

If approved, taxpayers with a $200,000 home with no income sensitivity would see a maximum increase of $86.20 on their tax bill, or $7.18 per month, district business manager Don Johnson calculated.

School trustees made a distinct effort to keep the tax increase under 3 percent when crafting the final numbers at their Jan. 30 budget meeting. They did so by using $894,557 of the unassigned FY17 fund balance – about $70,000 more than originally planned in the draft budget.

“It’s a fair budget. It’s lean,” superintendent Ann Bradshaw said. “We’re still gonna be way below what the governor wanted for an increase, and I think that the decisions that were made that went into building the budget are good.”

As budget season kicked off last November, Gov. Phil Scott said school districts with growing enrollment like Milton should keep increases in education spending per equalized pupil below the state’s growth rate calculation, 2.5 percent.

Milton’s FY19 figure of $14,362 represents a 1.53 percent decrease from FY18. Voters will see this number on Town Meeting Day ballots.

The fund balance transfer leaves $230,000 for forthcoming non-budgeted expenses.

Trustee Cathy Vadnais has long expressed concern about accumulating a large unreserved fund, calling it her “biggest bugaboo.” She was pleased the district is “backing out” out of the balance: Last year’s budget used $1 million to offset expenses. 

Trustees and Johnson repeatedly took to their calculators last week to decide what magical amount of fund balance would bring the tax rate below 3 percent.

They also slimmed costs for multiple proposed budget additions. For one, they trimmed a planned $80,000 to create higher pay for substitute teachers down to $30,000. Bradshaw hopes to attract more qualified subs, but said it’s unclear if either amount would accomplish the goal.

The budget invests in faculty. The board extended a grade six teacher’s one-year contract for $69,000 in anticipation of another large class size next school year, Bradshaw said.

Another grade 2 educator would be hired as well, a $74,425 expense. District numbers show the extra set of hands would decrease average class size from 22.6 to 18.8 students. The proposal also increases the English language teaching position from part-time to full-time, as English-learning students have increased from 16 to 26 over one year, district data shows.

Both an $81,000 elementary math interventionist and $43,000 middle school reading interventionist are included in the FY19 proposal. The latter’s salary is offset by a $38,000 vacant position.

Bradshaw said everyday general math instruction needs focus, “but we have students who are so behind, they really need a boost.”

Vadnais stressed a plan must be developed to hold the interventionists accountable for increasing Milton’s low reading and math standardized test scores.

“I’m not saying this cures the problem, but it’s a start,” Bradshaw said.

The most contentious topic of last week’s budget session was how to fund the district’s pre-K program. Bradshaw told trustees the end-date for the grant-funded program is currently unclear.

Best-case scenario, the grant extends to June 30, 2019 and the program costs the district $13,728 — the amount trustees agreed to budget.

But if today’s “political climate” interferes and the grant ends on Dec. 31, 2018, Bradshaw said the district would need an additional $58,992 to keep serving Milton’s youth.

Either way, the district plans to construct a licensed pre-K center at the high school. This will bring both sections on district grounds, as one is now off-site; another would remain at the elementary school.

Long-term, Bradshaw said the district would like to see the high school classroom become a technical center, allowing high school students interested in early childhood development to work with pre-schoolers.

Trustees said the board would revisit the pre-K discussion once Bradshaw hears from the state in April. The superintendent said this would give time for the district to adapt before the possible December deadline.

MTSD early education collaborative coordinator Wendy Cunningham advocated for the program’s continuation, citing the importance of early intervention.

“Everyone’s kids benefit,” Cunningham noted, saying the program aids many low-income and trauma-stricken children who need help transitioning to a classroom.

Board chairwoman Lori Donna acknowledged this but said she’s concerned about funding pre-K more than the state mandates.

Donna said she’d like to see funding go toward ensuring Dr. Anthony Muhammad’s suggestions from a 2016 school culture audit continue implementation. Bradshaw said no specific funds are allocated for this, adding the district’s internal efforts are addressing the needed improvements.

The FY19 budget also funds an added $20,000 for academic field trips.

Johnson then detailed FY19 budget savings, including $342,724 in debt service reduction — $282,425 of which is for the retiring Herrick Ave. school expansion bond and $49,000 in tax anticipation interest. The remaining amount is interest in other debt service, Johnson added.

The district also decreased special education outplaced tuition, transportation and contracted services by $356,269. It also eliminated a $92,000 school psychologist position the district was unable to fill last year.

MTSD will save $143,365 by not filling other vacant positions, including a teacher, three paraprofessionals and a .6 full-time equivalent custodian role. Johnson also cut funds for a bus no longer in use, and decreased the budgeted amount for fuel surcharges.

He also cut funds for healthcare reimbursement from 100 percent to 90, as he doesn’t expect faculty to collect the maximum.

“We hope that voters will take a look at the budget, see the numbers in there and support [it],” Bradshaw said. “It’s very focused on students and yeah, there are other things that we would love to have that we don’t, but we are working with what we think the community will approve.”

The board will hold a school budget public hearing on Monday, March 5 at 6:45 p.m. in the Milton High School auditorium.