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Mt. Vernon: Lots of uncertainties for the coming year’s budget
April 05, 2013 · Jake Krob

The Mount Vernon School Board on Monday will consider a budget with a tax rate that's about two percent less than the current rate.

But where it ends up will likely be out of the hands of the board.

The school board's hearing on the district's budget for next year is at 7 p.m. Monday in the Mount Vernon High School library.

The proposed budget published in last week's Sun shows a tax rate of just over $17.39 of a property's $1,000 taxable value. That's a drop from the current rate of $17.72.

The rate can't be higher than the published amount.

Superintendent Pam Ewell and business manager Matt Burke said although that's the proposed rate, it's not necessarily what's recommended. It's simply the top amount that the school board can certify.

"We won't know until April 8 when the board discusses it," Burke said.

But that's not where the uncertainty comes in.

"It's a very unusual year," Burke said.

School budgets are often certified before the state legislature makes funding-related decisions. In the past, Burke explained, that's sometimes meant a slight drop in the tax rate that school boards approved.

But this year, with property tax reform being discussed, it could change dramatically. The other issue: The state hasn't yet set next year's allowable growth, the increase (or, in some years, no increase) in per pupil funding.

Ewell said those uncertainties would be like a family trying to set a budget without knowing what their income will be.

Another state issue is education reform related to teachers. There's been much discussion about teacher leadership, such as schools assigning teachers to serve in roles as leaders. Ewell said it's unknown if it will pass, and how it would be funded.

"It's throwing Jell-O at the wall right now," Ewell said of the uncertainties.

After all, Burke and Ewell note, there's very little in the budget that the district can determine. Most of it is figured through a state formula.

What is known now is that the district's tax rate won't go above the published amount.

Burke and Ewell said the published tax rate is lower than the current rate for a couple of reasons.

One is that the levy for drop-out prevention has been lowered, due to a decision at the state level.

The other has to do with the amount of cash the district has on hand.

Burke said the maximum amount the district can budget for is 20 percent of expenditures. To be under that mark, the district has less of a need next year for the cash reserve levy.

Property tax for debt service is also declining. Burke said it drops about 15 percent a year. That's because as the value of the total properties in the district increase, less needs to be charged against that higher value.

The published budget is based on the district getting four percent allowable growth, essentially four percent more than the current $6,001 per pupil funding.

Ewell noted that if the state figures an allowable growth of less than four percent, the asking from property taxes could go down. But if Mount Vernon published a budget based on less of an allowable growth rate than what the state approves, the tax rate can't go up.

"Then you'd be stuck," she said.

Also in Mount Vernon's favor for next year's budget is enrollment, a key for school finances.

Over the last eight years, the district's enrollment is up about six percent, which means more in per pupil funding.

District leaders point out that much of the growth comes from open enrollment in. The district's open enrollment students are about 21 percent of the entire enrollment, far greater than the statewide average of just over eight percent.

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