Berm proposes 5.56 percent tax increase

The Bermudian Springs school board approved its preliminary budget on Tuesday, but the details of a potential tax increase are still uncertain.

The preliminary budget sets a tax increase at the Act One Index of 5.6%, a millage rate increase equivalent to 13.1636 mills.

The final budget will not be approved until June. At that point, the board could pass no tax increase or any increase up to the 5.6% Act One Index.

Approving the preliminary budget at the Act One Index allows the board flexibility to include up to that amount in its final budget.

Business manager Justin Peart elaborated more on the budget challenges during Monday’s caucus meeting. Over 90% of the board’s budget goes towards non-discretionary items, leaving only about 9% of the budget with more flexibility for the board.

Insurance, salaries and other mandatory items make up the majority of the budget, according to Peart. Cyber/charter fees are also part of that non-discretionary budget and have increased significantly over the years.

According to Peart, the district has spent almost $10 million on cyber/charter schools in the past eight years.

The number of students enrolled in cyber/charter schools has increased from 92 in the 2015-16 school year to 104 in 2022-23.

The highest number of students enrolled in cyber/charter school was 169 in 2020-21.

But rates have increased steeply over the years from $8,270.84 for regular education students and $13,852.29 for special education students in 2015-16 to $13,556.84 for regular education students and $25,081.81 for special education students in 2022-23.

With over 90% of the district’s budget devoted to non-discretionary items, there is little fat to trim.

Even if the board approves a tax increase set to the Act One Index, the district’s fund balance will likely decrease from about $5,546,917 on June 30, 2023 to $4,122,494 by June 30, 2024, according to Peart. The district would need to spend $1,424,423 to balance its 2023-24 budget.

A more modest tax increase of 2.8% would take a larger chunk out of savings, leaving the board with an estimated fund balance of $3,743,960 by June 30, 2024.

Approving no tax increase would require spending about $1,802,957 of fund balance. The district would have an estimated $3,365,335 left in fund balance by June 30, 2024.

The board heard Peart’s latest budget presentation during the caucus meeting on Monday evening.

During the regular meeting on Tuesday, the board approved its preliminary budget at the Act One Index to allow itself flexibility, but the final budget could see a tax increase fall anywhere between 0% and 5.6%.

Before the vote, board member Matthew Nelson asked whether board members had an idea of what they felt would be approved.

“So far the only thing we’ve discussed is the Act One Index, so it would be understandable if members of the public then thought all of us supported having a budget at the Act One Index, because no one has said anything different publicly,” Nelson said.

Board members expressed frustration at the haziness surrounding the state’s budget. The district will not know exactly how much to expect from state funding until the state budget is approved. On top of an already tight budget and rising costs, approving a final district budget without those figures is challenging.

Bermudian Springs did not approve a tax increase in either of the past two years.

Special education classrooms

During the board’s caucus meeting, Brian Booher, the district’s director of special education, joined Peart to advocate for adding a special education classroom to the district.

Booher said the classroom will serve early intervention students and will begin this school year if everything can be finalized, pending board approval.

Students sometimes need to be served in other locations, but Booher said keeping them in the district would reduce the time the students spend traveling, help students spend more time in the district and reduce district expenses.

According to Booher, the district primarily needs to add autistic support. About six to nine students would be served, with four or five in early intervention, one or two currently using outside placements, and another one or two students served in a consortium classroom, according to Booher.

Creating the autistic support class would involve hiring one teacher, two classroom aides and one board certified behavior analyst on top of paying for equipment needs but would still save money, according to Peart.

Keeping the students in outside placements would cost about $317,368.

On the high end, Peart said the district would need $225,840 for staff and $15,000 for classroom supplies for a total of $240,840, though the final price tag could be less. That figure does not include the reduced transportation costs if the students were kept in the district.

Lunch debt, donation

Sweet Charities of Hanover donated $5,000 to cover the entire district’s lunch debt, but the zero-dollar balance was short-lived.

The donation was approved during Tuesday’s regular meeting. During Monday’s caucus meeting, Peart said that the district had already seen a negative balance accrue just two weeks after the donation was received.

“They graciously gave us $5,000, which is tremendous and we’re very appreciative of that, but unfortunately, within two weeks after receiving this we’re already up to a $1,500 negative balance,” Peart said.

Peart suggested the community was becoming used to donations covering the debt.

“So, not to put a damper on the fact that (Sweet Charities) provided us this, but the reality of it is, it appears as though that the public is becoming accustomed to the donations coming about and not paying any of their lunch debt,” Peart said. “But the debt has already skyrocketed up over $1,500.”

This was the second $5,000 donation the district has received to apply to lunch debt this school year.

“Keep in mind we paid off $5,000 at Christmastime,” Superintendent Shane Hotchkiss said. “This is the second $5,000, and now in addition there, so we’re like $12,000 for the year so far. We have to pay it. We can’t operate in the negative, so we have to use the general fund money to pay that debt. So we’re very thankful to Sweet Charities for making that donation, and we’re very appreciative of that, for sure.”

Other matters

The board approved an agreement with TherAbilities for the 2023-24 school year. Hotchkiss said that the caseload will be over the amount the district’s full-time speech therapist can serve, and TherAbilities will be used on an as-needed schedule.

Ruth Griffie was re-elected as the board’s treasurer. Her new one-year term will begin on July 1.

The board approved the resignation of Jossie Pacheco, who was approved as the district’s administrative assistant to the superintendent and assistant superintendent last month.

Pacheco was approved on April 11, but the resignation was made effective as of April 18. Discussing the matter during the board’s caucus meeting on Monday, Hotchkiss said Pacheco had been “offered a better job opportunity.”

The board did not discuss the position further.

Summer camp teachers, aides and nurses were also approved on Tuesday. Camp directors were approved during a previous meeting.

The board will hold a caucus meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, June 12.

Its next regular meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 13.

Meetings are held in the administration building board room and are shown live on the district’s YouTube channel.

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Imari Scarbrough is a freelance journalist. She was a staff newspaper reporter for five years before becoming a freelancer in 2017. She has written on crime, environmental issues, severe weather events, local and regional government and more.

You can visit her website at ImariJournal.com.

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