Barre councilors chafe at school budget increase
BARRE — A school budget that reflects a double-digit increase in spending for the second straight year came in for gentle criticism from some City Council members this week.
With the council scheduled to formally begin its own budget deliberations Saturday, news that the cost of running the city’s pre-K-through-8 elementary school would climb 12 percent based on the newly adopted spending plan was a source of frustration for Councilor Paul Poirier. Two of his fellow council members — Lucas Herring and Anita Chadderton — are also members of the School Board.
He said the increase seemed excessive. “If (the council) tried to go to the … (voters) with a 12 percent increase in spending our budget would get voted down,” Poirier said, noting that last year a municipal budget that was initially up 6 percent failed twice before a scaled-down version was finally approved.
“Why as School Board members do you think you can go to the voters and ask for this amount of money?” Poirier asked.
Herring, who, like Chadderton, took a seat in the audience while Superintendent John Bacon was making his budget presentation, said several factors — from negotiated pay raises and health insurance benefits to busing costs and special education expenses — were driving the increase. He did note the budget includes funding for a new assistant principal’s position and an additional fifth-grade teacher. Both positions, he said, could be traced to a projected increase in enrollment at the city’s elementary school.
Bacon defended the inclusion of a new $70,000 administrative position that has been viewed as a need for several years.
“A school this size usually has an assistant principal,” he said, prompting a quick quip from Poirier.
“A municipality this size should have an assistant city manager,” Poirier said, noting that position has also been discussed for several years but has always been a casualty of the council’s budget-building process.
Mayor Thomas Lauzon said he wasn’t about to second-guess the School Board but wondered aloud whether including a new administrative position in the budget might have been a “reach” in a year when spending was up 12 percent.
“At what point do we look at these types of numbers and say: ‘This just isn’t sustainable’?” said Lauzon. “We can’t increase expenditures 10 percent consistently on an annual basis … (because) at a certain point the math doesn’t work.”
Lauzon, who once served as chairman of the School Board and its finance committee, said he appreciated the challenges facing the board but was also sensitive to the needs of the city’s taxpayers.
“This budget asks a lot of voters,” he said.
During the budget discussion Poirier warned school officials that he will advocate putting two police officers — one assigned to Barre City Elementary and Middle School and the other to Spaulding High School — on the beat full time. Both school resource officer positions were created with federal grants that have long since expired, and the costs of the positions are now split between the city and the two school districts.
Poirier said that cost sharing would end if he gets his way, though the schools would be welcome to work with Chief Tim Bombardier to address their security needs.
“We need our full allotment of police officers to be doing police business in the municipality,” he said.
Including Bombardier and the two school resource officers, the city has an 18-member police department.
Councilor Charlie Dindo said he would support that effort and, like Poirier and Lauzon, questioned the 12 percent increase in the budget for the elementary school. Dindo said the 5 percent increase in the proposed budget for Spaulding High School seemed more reasonable.
Bacon defended the budget request that he described as “bare bones” and said the local school district compares very favorably when it comes to per-pupil spending and school tax rates.
According to Bacon’s estimates the local school tax rate will increase just over 6.3 cents if all school spending initiatives that will be on the ballot in Barre are approved in March. Bacon said that projected rate hike would have been more than 10 cents if not for an increase in the city’s common level of appraisal.
The common level of appraisal, or CLA, is a calculation the state uses to equalize property values from community to community for school funding purposes. If the state believes a municipality’s valuation of its property isn’t current, it raises the tax rate a corresponding percentage.
The city’s CLA has climbed from 96.38 to 99.95 percent, according to Bacon, who said that shaved 4 to 5 cents from the projected tax rate.
The school budget discussion occurred on a night when councilors retroactively approved tax stabilization agreements for three projects, granted the 2.5 percent pay raise requested by City Clerk Carol Dawes, entertained the appeal of a man who has been ordered by the city not to rent one of his properties, and agreed to wait until Saturday to discuss the first draft of City Manager Steve Mackenzie’s budget request.
Mackenzie’s draft budget — a document he described as “fluid” — calls for spending just over $10.6 million during the coming fiscal year. That’s up roughly $680,000 over the $9.9 million budget voters approved for the current fiscal year — an increase of nearly 7 percent. That budget will be the starting point for deliberations that will start Saturday at 7:30 a.m. in council chambers.
In addition to approving tax stabilization agreements for projects on Washington, South Main and West Second streets, the council took under advisement John Clark’s appeal of a “no rent order” issued by city inspectors and upheld by Mackenzie. Clark has essentially claimed that the property he purchased is not subject to the city’s minimum housing standards for rental property because his now-lapsed “house-sitting” arrangement did not rise to the level of a tenant-landlord relationship.
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