"It's difficult to make predictions - especially about the future."—Unknown
This quote, attributed to a number of historical figures (Mark Twain, Niels Bohr, Yogi Berra…) has been on my mind a great deal this budget season. Last year, the school board presented a budget with a 1.57% increase for the Marion Cross School (MCS), but which resulted in a 1.99% decrease to the tax rate (when other factors were calculated in, including the Dresden assessment for educating grades 7-12). That budget accounted for a predicted slight reduction in student enrollment from 289 in the 2018-19 to 284 in 2019-20 (this year). As of this writing, we have 309 students at MCS. This 25-student jump in enrollment occurred between the end of the last school year and the start of this year, resulting in larger class sizes and efforts to find more support in the classrooms entering the school year. As a result of the student distribution throughout the grade levels – and a predicted level enrollment for next year and increased enrollment in the following year – the administration and the board recognize the need to add two classroom teachers and a special educator to the MCS staff.
We are one of a few Vermont towns to see increased enrollment and should be proud that our school system is so sought after, but there can be challenges managing budgetary increases that are necessary to address educational needs. The nature of Vermont’s education financing system also can create challenges. While our budget reflects a 5.99% increase over last year (largely a result of increased staff and special education costs) our estimated homestead tax rate increase also was negatively affected by a significant drop in our Common Level of Appraisal (the calculation the State makes on whether our properties are assessed at actual values) from 98.09% to 94.16%. By comparison, last year’s drop was from 98.29% to 98.09% (a 100% CLA denotes a calculation that properties are assessed right at value). Challenges in predicting the future of student enrollment and the State’s CLA designation, but the need to address both, are the main reasons for a 5.77% increase in the homestead tax rate.
There are other contributing factors associated with the increase in the tax rate, however, that are separate from the MCS budget and which varied in their level of predictability. The main contributing factor in the increase from the Dresden budget is a predicted increase in the percentage of students from Norwich versus those from Hanover. The increase in the SAU budget (that which oversees the administrative aspects of the District) is the result of a re-assessment of past decisions. Three years ago, the SAU board decided not to hire a new Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment (CIA) Coordinator and, prior to that, had decided not to hire a staff member whose role also included those responsibilities associated with that of an Assistant Superintendent. Over the past couple of years, the board has come to recognize the need for the CIA position to be reinstated and to have a staff member who would also serve as an Assistant Superintendent. That combined position is included in next year’s proposed SAU budget.
There is one other factorthat will affect the2020-21 budget that is not included, as currently proposed. While the numbers do include step and track increases for our teachers and support staff at MCS, and they do include the health insurance increase related to the arbitrator’s decision in the Statewide healthcare negotiations (the arbitrator found in favor of the teachers’ union’s proposal), they do not include a final settlement with the teacher and support staff unions. These negotiations are ongoing.
Another future budgetary item that I wish to address here, not because it will affect next year’s budget, but because we had hoped for it to be on the ballot this Town Meeting Day, is a resolution to the septic issues at MCS. As you may have noticed, approximately one half of the Town Green has been fenced off since November. This is one of a few steps the District is taking to address problems that have arisen with the system in the cold months, while we identify a long-term solution. Though it is taking longer than we had hoped to come to a resolution, we continue to pursue a few options to address the issues. Among the options area replacement of the system where it currently is under the Green with a new septic system, or a wastewater connection to Hartford’s system. Over the coming months, we will provide updates on the progress of this effort. In the meantime, we thank you for your patience.
Despite the challenges inherent to predictions, your board and District administration worked hard to come to agreement on budgets (Norwich, Dresden, and SAU) that would provide the best educational opportunities, while exhibiting fiscal responsibility. We are proud of the great work that goes into educating our Town’s youth every school day – and beyond – and we are very fortunate our children have a wide array of experiential learning opportunities, wound throughout classroom instruction, music, the arts, foreign language study, and outdoor education and we want to build upon them. As such, your board and administration recognize the need to get ahead in the process of planning the future direction of our school district. To do so, we will work to develop a strategic plan that will begin with identifying what we wish to see in a graduate of Hanover High School – i.e., the portrait of a graduate. Building on this central construct, we will then form four subcommittees addressing the topics of: education, finance, facilities and grounds, and governance. These committees will include administrators, board members, teachers, area experts, and community members. We look forward to working with you to map out our District’s educational future.
Finally, a welcome and thanks. Please join us in welcoming (though he will have been with us for eight months by the time of Town Meeting Day) our new principal of the Marion Cross School, Shawn Gonyaw. Shawn brings a wealth of experience in the education field to MCS, including the last 12 years as a principal. It has been a pleasure working with and getting to know him. It also has been my pleasure and honor to work alongside Jim Mackall and Lauren Rhim. After multiple years and terms of service on the school board, Jim and Lauren have decided not to seek reelection this year. Their thoughtful insights and dedication will be greatly missed. And thanks, as well, to all of you, for the tremendous support provided for the education of our children. Beyond our fantastic faculty, staff, administrators, PTO members, and those volunteering their time to share their expertise in myriad ways, we know how fortunate we are to have such a supportive community. Thank you.
— Tom Candon, Chair, Norwich School Board