Taxes down, spending up in school budget proposal

Editor’s note: This story appeared in the Jan. 21, 2016 edition of The Colchester Sun with an incorrect headline. The headline has been corrected here. We regret the error.


By Jason Starr
The Colchester Sun

How does a Colchester School District spending increase of $1.5 million result in a property tax decrease of 3.81 percent? Two recent state laws are combining this year to account for the contradiction: Act 166 spurred a revenue-producing preschool program, and Act 46 made it so that changes in per pupil spending are more relevant to property taxes than overall budget increases.

The Colchester School Board on Tuesday approved sending the $37.9 million budget — a 4.1 percent increase over the current fiscal year — to voters for consideration on Town Meeting Day, March 1. The overall budget amount will appear on the ballot along with, for the first time as a result of Act 46, the proposed amount to be spent per student.

Under Act 46, the school district is allowed an increase in per-student spending of 2.35 percent. That means the board could have increased spending to $13,851 per student for next year.

Currently, Colchester spends $13,535 per student, according to Superintendent Larry Waters. The amount that will appear on the ballot for voter consideration is $13,297 — a decrease of 1.7 percent. The decrease leads to an estimated annual decrease in property taxes of about 4.4 cents, Waters estimates. As a result, the owner of a $300,000 home in Colchester would see a tax decrease of roughly $170 annually.

“We should make sure we have paramedics at the polling station. Some people might faint when they see this,” school board chairman Mike Rogers joked during a Jan. 5 board meeting.

It would be the first tax decrease in Waters’ 10 years as superintendent.

Driving the tax decrease is increased revenue the district is banking on in the form of about 30 new preschool students within the district’s in-house preschool program, and more among its 45 partner preschools. Under Act 166, the district receives $4,351 per preschooler attending an outside provider and $9,459 for in-house students from the state, Waters said. Preschool families receive $3,000 per student under the law. Overall, the district expects to make about $120,000 more in preschool revenue than the current year.

The district is also offsetting costs with an $800,000 budget surplus from the previous fiscal year.

The increased revenue and budget surplus have given the district room to propose some new expenses. A new information technology specialist and new third-grade teacher are added in the proposed budget. Other proposed additions are $50,000 in teacher training and $58,000 in increased high school athletic expenses. Overall, the board is proposing $280,000 in new expenses.

“Before we saw the (tax) decrease, I was going to vote against some of this stuff, but I see they are needed, and if we can’t get them now, we’re never going to get them,” board member Craig Kieny said.

The remainder of the $1.5 million increase is embedded in contracted salary and benefit increases for teachers and support staff.