Taxpayers in the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) may see a 3 cent reduction in the homestead tax rate next year if the HUUSD administrative team can find $600,000 in savings.
During a December 12 meeting, the board received its second budget report from the director of finance, Michelle Baker. Baker recently reviewed the draft with the board citing initial costs and made recommendations from the administrative team about surplus FY18 funds.
In the second draft of the budget, Baker noted that the percentage the budget was expected to raise, then 3.6 percent, is now an even 4.0 percent, with a total of $38,667,849 projected for the FY2020 year budget.
Baker did a rough calculation of the local and state revenue against the general fund expenditures to get an estimated tax rate of $1.63, compared to last year’s $1.60, which shows a 2.3 percent increase after Act 46 merging incentives. One cent on the tax rate is equal to $190,000. The FY20 equalized homestead tax rate is estimated at this time to be $1.63. In order to lower it to $1.60, the budget has to be reduced by $600,000.
The board discussed possible cuts that they could make without cutting newly implemented programs and staff that complement student learning styles and interests.
The board has been working proactively with the administrative team to come to a conclusion on how they can keep a budget in line with the governor’s recommendation of a 2.5 percent increase in education spending per equalized pupil. There is a penalty threshold of $18,311 per pupil. The board is currently at $18,060 per pupil, and if the district goes over taxpayers will be penalized.
Education spending – budgeted expenses less local and state revenues – is up 5.4 percent over last year in the current FY20 draft budget. To keep the education spending increase to 2.5 percent per the governor's suggestion, the budget has to be reduced by $866,212.
When the board discussed a 3 to 4 cent reduction, Superintendent Brigid Nease said that that would entail more than the board cutting supplies; they’d be cutting staff.
The thought did not sit well with the board as they look to keep programming. One idea that came out of the recommendations in the first draft budget was to review the positions across the district such as the food coordinator positions. There are four food coordinators in the district currently and if all the schools were to run on the same plan, the district would only need one individual, two at the max, for the position. Nease commented that that idea would only be saving the district roughly $160,000.
Warren representative Rosemarie White suggested that the board look ahead when budgeting and not plan out a year-by-year number. By planning ahead, the board can address the annual increases and budget for the project debts they currently have and will have from an upcoming $19 million bond to upgrade Harwood. If the bond goes through, the district will see a $2 million a year debt average.
White said that the special education reimbursement will be changing within the next five years.
Waterbury representative and vice chair Caitlin Hollister said, “If we’re looking at this $2 million a year potential debt service on a potential bond, at the time $2 million is savings from potentially closing schools did not feel to many of us significant, but it is feeling significant to me right now. Again, I don’t want to be scared to put things on the table and talk about them. The other thing, in terms of what Rosemarie has mentioned, I’m very compelled to go in some direction here that would look at some multiyear planning. My suggestion would be perhaps could we try and plan for this year as if our incentive was only the 4 cents, so looking at what it would mean to cut 2 cents off our tax rate. … I’m trying to think creatively about what we could do that wouldn’t be drastic but would be significant and would be proactive.”
Waterbury representative Alex Thomsen added that looking for savings in the district could look different from the board’s view to the community’s view. Adding 2 cents onto community’s tax dollar can impact some people more than others.
“I just feel like the reality is that we’re not going to be able to have this be a Kumbaya process, where it feels really good to all of this and we’re able to keep all of our programs and everything in perfect. It’s going to be really hard and we’re going to lose people and we’re going to lose buildings and things are going to be really difficult and at some point we have to be able to make those decisions and we can’t ask our community to bear the burden of us not being willing to do it in here,” said Thomsen.
Melissa Phillips, Waterbury representative, noted that schools are closing all over the state with the consolidation process, and said that the HUHS district is not in a vacuum and the conversation has been ongoing statewide.
Nease said the board’s budgeting dilemma revolves around the people portion of the budget. There are only so many ways to reconfigure and reduce positions before a loss in programs results – which the board and community don’t want.
Nease said the board must configure a number for the administration to cut. Nease factors in $75,000 per employee in terms of cost savings. Nease said she doesn’t know where else the positions could be spared besides food programs, and Nease doesn’t think other results will be palatable to the board.
Finding the funds to cut would potentially come from the food services, interventionist, maybe a classroom teacher and elementary world language. Nease asked the board to think about the decisions and if cutting people would go against the board’s goals.
Board chair Christine Sullivan said the board worked hard to get world language taught in the elementary schools and questioned if the board wanted to go down that road.
Before voting on how much to ask the admin team to cut, Thomsen said, “The reason we have to talk about school closures and school reconfiguration is not because we want to do that; but because otherwise everyone’s property taxes are going to go up and up and up forever. So I guess what we need is for the general public to understand what it means to take 2 cents off the dollar and what happens to our budget when we do that.”
The board passed a motion requiring the administration to come back with a budget that reduces the tax rate from $1.63 to $1.60, which would required a $600,000 reduction using current estimates.