“Fiscal cliff” may impact Barre City school budget
BARRE — A school district that, due partly to its demographics, is more reliant on federal funding than most in Vermont is budgeting against the backdrop of the fiscal cliff this year.
Superintendent John Bacon told school commissioners this week they will have to keep tabs on whether Congressional leaders can work out their differences in time to avoid automatic cuts to the federal budget that, he said, could have a profound effect on some programs offered at Barre City Elementary and Middle School.
During the current fiscal year the Barre School District expects to receive roughly $925,000 in federal aid through an assortment of grant programs. Those programs range from Title 1, which provides funding to bolster the academic performance of disadvantaged students, to IDEA, which specifically targets students with disabilities.
According to Bacon, that money is locked in for this year, but all bets are off when it comes to the fiscal year that will start next July.
For budgeting purposes, Bacon said school administrators are operating under the assumption that the fiscal cliff will be avoided, sequestration won’t kick in, and federal funding will remain at or near this year’s levels.
Sequestration is a legal procedure in which automatic spending cuts are triggered.
Bacon said the specter of sequestration shouldn’t drive the board’s budget-building process. However, he said, members shouldn’t be blind to it.
“We should keep an eye on what’s going on and if it looks like we’re going off the fiscal cliff we should count on maybe getting 50 percent of that (federal) money,” he said.
Asked for a “worst-case” scenario, Bacon said preserving positions that are currently federally funded would likely mean adding roughly $500,000 to the local school budget if cuts associated with sequestration kick in.
That would be in addition to the already sobering increase reflected in a draft budget that will be the subject of extensive deliberations in coming weeks.
That $12.43 million spending plan reflects an increase of almost $1.4 million over the $11.05 million budget that Barre voters approved for the city’s pre-K-8 elementary school earlier this year and is $2.4 million more than the $10.03 million budget that was on the Town Meeting Day ballot in 2011.
The draft budget represents the starting point for deliberations this year and includes a number of new positions and initiatives that will be scrutinized by members of the board’s finance committee. That committee has been asked to evaluate the proposal and report back with a recommendation.
Bacon urged the board not to set an arbitrary target at the outset of the committee’s deliberations, suggesting that picking a percentage increase might discourage the panel from “… budgeting for something that you really feel is important.” He went on to note that the local school district has historically boasted one of the lowest “cost-per-pupil budgets in the state” despite being saddled with one of the “neediest student populations” on a percentage basis.
“The reality is that costs money,” he said.
School Commissioner Anita Ristau didn’t dispute Bacon’s claim, but she did offer some additional perspective.
“We’re also a blue collar community… and I think (a) 10 percent (spending increase) is not really going to go over (very well),” she said.
The $1.4 million budget increase would actually be over $1.6 million if not for nearly $220,000 in savings associated with the fact that the bond that financed the construction of the school will be partially retired during the coming fiscal year. The annual principal payment will drop from $300,000 to $100,000, and interest on the debt will be reduced by roughly $18,000.
However, the proposed addition of several new staff positions would offset that savings.
The draft budget reflects more than $200,000 in salaries and benefits for two new middle school teachers, an additional music teacher and a part-time health instructor. The draft also includes $70,000 for an assistant principal’s position that has been proposed, but never funded in the past.
Other notable increases in the draft budget include $50,000 for playground equipment and $35,000 for new textbooks.
Although the draft budget reflects a $600,000 surge in the cost of providing special education services, well over half of that amount — nearly $370,000 — would generate at least some off-setting revenue in the form of state reimbursements.
School Commissioner Sonya Spaulding said the committee would like more information about those reimbursements, and revenue in general, as it begins its work.
Business Manager Mark Lyons is projecting busing costs could climb to almost $630,000 during the coming fiscal year, an increase of nearly $130,000. However, he noted, 50 percent of those costs are reimbursed.
Still, Bacon said, it might be time for the board to “seriously consider” running its own busing system.
The committee will meet next to discuss the budget on Dec. 6 at 5:30 p.m.
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