School uses surplus to net no increase

Pre-kindergarten students listen to a story from teacher Sara LeBlanc at Milton Public Library. The district was able to trim $278,000 from its original proposal for early essential education provider tuitions, as fewer students enrolled as previously anticipated.  (Courtesy photo)

Pre-kindergarten students listen to a story from teacher Sara LeBlanc at Milton Public Library. The district was able to trim $278,000 from its original proposal for early essential education provider tuitions, as fewer students enrolled as previously anticipated. (Courtesy photo)

Milton’s school budget aims for no local tax increase in fiscal year 2017, officials said.

The $28.6 million general fund is up $1.03 million, or 3.75 percent, over FY16’s $27.57 bottom line. Of that, the $23.15 million in education spending – the amount raised by taxes and the education fund – is reduced thanks to the application of $834,700 of the district’s FY15 surplus, business manager Don Johnson said.

The board took this route to avoid cutting personnel and to meet new education spending per pupil thresholds instituted in Act 46, the landmark school merger law that also set allowable growth provisions for FY17.

Without applying part of the surplus, which totaled $1.5 million, according to the school’s FY15 audit, the board would have needed to cut $738,827 to meet Act 46, Johnson said.

“Anything when you get into that magnitude would be devastating,” he said.

The proposal meets Act 46’s current threshold of $14,387.77 per equalized pupil by $59.34, numbers show. If the legislature changes these limits, the district will apply more or less surplus to ensure a level $1.4013 tax rate, Johnson said.

The remaining FY15 fund balance, about $674,300, will be appropriated to the district’s capital repair and replacement reserve fund, populated by FY14’s $824,116 surplus.

That’s if voters approve the school’s Article 2; otherwise the entire fund balance is applied to FY17 education spending, Johnson said.

Since the budget’s tax impact, or projected lack thereof, relies so heavily on the fund balance, it bears explaining.

The surplus represents leaving $1.16 million, or 4.5 percent, unspent plus earning $344,000 in unexpected revenue, primarily special education reimbursements, the audit says.

In November 2014, Johnson recommended scaling back spending once he realized the district was overcommitted by more than $340,000 in various line items.

Compounding this was news that extraordinary special ed expenses – those that earn a 90 percent reimbursement instead of the usual 57 – were up statewide, putting the full refund at risk and making it likely Milton could owe the state back at year-end, Johnson said.

Fearing a deficit, the district instituted essential spending only.

“Pretty much it was keep the lights on, and if we need pencils, we’ll buy them, but anything that could be deferred was deferred,” temporary interim superintendent Ann Bradshaw said.

Johnson said the abnormal spending cycle also resulted from the “negative publicity and battles” surrounding the Milton High School football hazing scandal and controversy over the legitimacy of Superintendent John Barone’s doctorate.

“It was a horrible year for the district, operation wise,” he said. “We were too busy putting out fires and recoiling back.”

In the end, “it’s a silver lining to Act 46,” Johnson added. “There’s nothing really positive about it, other than when you run into unfunded mandates, you suddenly have help.”

This pie chart shows how Milton school district's 3.75 percent general fund increase is distributed. The education spending portion of the budget is defrayed this year, thanks to the application of $834,700 in fund balance from fiscal year 2015. This will result in no tax increase, officials said. (Chart by Courtney Lamdin)

This pie chart shows how Milton school district’s 3.75 percent general fund increase is distributed. The education spending portion of the budget is defrayed this year, thanks to the application of $834,700 in fund balance from fiscal year 2015. This will result in no tax increase, officials said. (Chart by Courtney Lamdin)

Applying surplus is the opposite tack from last Town Meeting, when that board voted against “artificially deflating” the tax rate for a year.

Though she voted for the proposal, trustee Cathy Vadnais disagreed with the move, saying, “It’s a stopgap. It’s buying us time. That’s all it is.”

She urged administrators to find ways to make up that amount so FY18 isn’t a massive increase. Bradshaw hopes for another surplus to defray this, “but at the same time, it’s difficult to predict right now how we would get there,” she said.

Achieving the FY17 proposal took cuts, too, to the tune of $722,000, district figures show.

This includes $211,700 from employee benefits, professional services, communications, supplies, gasoline and others. Special education – despite this being an area of regular growth – cut about $114,400 in salaries, professional services, equipment and more.

Early essential education, or EEE, saw both cuts and growth. The district anticipated under Act 166, the universal pre-kindergarten program, Milton would provide $3,000 in tuition for 180 children attending partner sites; this ended up being 88 students, trimming nearly $278,000, Johnson said.

EEE also came with a mandate to add a preschool teacher and three instructional assistants for nearly $187,300. K-5 special education required three specialized staff for $134,600, numbers show.

The district cut one first grade teacher and trimmed special ed and other accounts to keep two of four positions provided by a substantial guidance grant that expired this year.

As a result, first grade will have an average class size of 20 instead of 16.7, Bradshaw said. She thinks the guidance positions were worth it.

“We have tremendous needs in social and emotional and mental health situations,” she said. “We really have a lot of challenges given the staffing we have, and I certainly can see where it would have been very difficult if these positions were cut.”

Overall, Bradshaw thinks the budget maintains reasonable staffing and class sizes. If the reserve fund ballot item passes, the board will continue planning capital needs, like the MHS cafeteria and locker room renovations.

“They’re looking to see how we can improve things on a modest budget,” she said. “We’ve been waylaid a little bit by the budget, but I expect we’ll be back into that.”

In the meantime, voters can look forward to minimal tax increases.

“It’s not our money; it’s the taxpayer’s money,” Bradshaw said. “We have to be sure we’re providing the best education possible in a fiscally responsible manner.”

Anyone with questions about the budget can call 893-5400, click on mtsd-vt.org or attend pre-Town Meeting starting at 6 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 29 at MHS; the school presentation begins at 6:45 p.m.

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