Town Meeting Article 7: I Vote NO

Keep Norwich affordable for those that already live here

Article 7 seeks to add an extra $100,000 to the Marion Cross School budget. I am voting NO on that Article. The larger class size is manageable, we fund MCS at a cost of $19,600 per student next year, and frankly, my property taxes are choking me. 

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Having 22/23 students in a class is not ideal. But every budget involves tradeoffs.  The Budget Committee was aware of the class size issue but chose to keep other programs instead.  One program retained was funded by a federal grant that is no longer available - Learning about the Environment through Experiential Education Projects or LEEEP. Principal Bill Hammond indicated at a budget hearing that keeping the LEEEP teacher and certain elective programs was more important for MCS overall.  Hence, the decision about fifth grade staffing. This was not an arbitrary decision by the beancounters but a thoughtful one made by educators. It is not a change in school policy. 

Having 22/23 students in a class is manageable. The Marion Cross School teaching staff is more than capable of handling a class of those sizes. Principal Hammond believes that as does the School Board. As School Board member Neil Odell observed at the January 25 meeting, the reason the average salary of Norwich teachers are the HIGHEST in the state is because they are extremely capable and have significant experience. MCS has a fine staff and a good culture in a supportive community.* 

Last, but not least, is the issue of taxes. Without the warrant, the homestead tax rate increases by nine cents, the largest increase that anyone on the Norwich School Board can recall going back nine years. The warrant will add two cents, or about 20% to a record increase in taxes, even though the total budget (MCS and Dresden Assessment) increases less than one percent. 

Like it or not, per pupil spending drives school property taxes in Vermont. The State, which sets the tax rate, does not care that the budget growth is less than inflation.** Norwich spends more per pupil than nearly every other town in Vermont. That includes the town of Charlotte which has a higher median household income than Norwich and similar sized population, but spends $1000 less per student, and has a homestead tax rate about 20 cents lower. Charlotte's homestead tax rate is lower than its nonresidential rate. In contrast, the Norwich homestead rate is higher, an unfairness in the Vermont tax system. See School Homestead Tax Rate: How can this be fair?

As proposed, the budget spends over $19,600 per MCS student. Although the comparison is not perfect, the tuition at Crossroads Academy, a private K-8 school in Lyme, is $18,500 for next yearAdding the warrant pushes per pupil spending at MCS to almost $20,000.

The education fund in Vermont is in crisis and it is getting worse. Norwich is not immune from that. The $100,000 warrant is not a budget blip. Enrollment is declining, increasing per pupil costs. Special education and other costs are on the rise.** Teachers have a new contract, paying them more than inflation. That contract has health benefits that the State says are too generous, with the result that the School District is penalized by losing funds. In addition, MCS has not reserved funds to replace the septic field, remove and replace the underground heating oil tank, or redo the driveways and parking areas. 

The residents of this Town are not all so well off that higher property taxes are insignificant. If a family owns a $400,000 home and make $150,000 a year, that family pays more than 5% of its income in school property taxes.  Households making less than $142,000 a year qualifying for income sensitivity pay a little more than 3% of income in school taxes. That is in addition to state and federal income taxes, payroll taxes, health insurance and don't forget to max out your IRA.

Some of the debate about the Town Plan relates to affordable housing. A first priority should be keeping Norwich affordable for those that already live here.

Some parents pushing hard for reduced class size forgot that this a community funded school. School Board member Jim Mackall described their approach as "condescending, disrespectful and arrogant", even though he favored the expenditure. 

Watching the videos of the budget hearings, I was taken aback by the comment of one parent that seemingly 'bragged' that he saved $100,000 a year in private school tuition by moving his family to Norwich from Providence.*** He may think of that as saving money but in reality every property owner in Norwich is paying for his kids high quality education. He is right that quality schools improve house values. But he forgets that some long term residents with deep roots in the community would rather live in their homes than move out of Norwich because taxes are too high. Has gentrification comes to Norwich? † 

*  In the Norwich | Dresden School Districts brochure explaining the budget, Tom Candon, Chair, Norwich School Board observed: [The Marion Cross School ] is a focal point of our town and we are blessed with a strong administration, excellent teachers and staff, and an incredibly supportive community. Our teachers work hard to develop a curriculum that intertwines core coursework with the many special programs we are so fortunate to provide our students 

** The latest Annual Financial Report of the Norwich School District says:  With a state financing system that relies heavily on a statewide property tax, firm property values in Norwich combined with softening values elsewhere will put upward pressure on tax obligations, regardless of the level of local spending on schools. Further, since the system is based on per pupil, rather than total, costs, flat or declining enrollments will also put upward pressure on tax rates. Further budgetary challenges will undoubtedly include increases in special education requirements, health insurance, energy, electricity, heating fuel, and technology. 

† The Wikipedia entry Gentrification begins: Gentrification is a process of renovation of deteriorated urban neighborhoods by means of the influx of more affluent residents. This is a common and controversial topic in politics and in urban planning. Gentrification can improve the quality of a neighborhood, while also potentially forcing relocation of current, established residents and businesses, causing them to move from a gentrified area, seeking lower cost housing and stores. Gentrification often shifts a neighborhood’s racial/ethnic composition and average household income by developing new, more expensive housing, businesses and improved resources. 

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