VUHS budget earns support on second try after teacher cuts

VERGENNES — It took two tries, but voters in the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union on Tuesday approved a 2014-2015 budget for Vergennes Union High School.

“I’m happy for all of us that the budget passed,” ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien said. “It sets the stage for us to move forward.”

By a vote of 687-584, ANwSU residents approved a spending plan of $9.42 million. By a wider margin, 773-498, residents approved the deposit of $40,000 into the capital improvement fund, to cover future repairs to and maintenance of the school building.

Voters rejected the original proposed fiscal year 2014-2015 budget, totaling $9.73 million on Town Meeting Day, by a tally of 961-747. A majority of voters in each of ANwSU’s five sending towns voted “no” that day.

After the defeat, the VUHS board dove back into budget negotiations, and after taking input from faculty, community members and parents during several hours-long meetings, proposed a budget of $9.42 million — some $317,000 less than the original draft. That number is also $82,500 less than the present budget of $9.5 million.

The cuts will force district administrators to lay off the equivalent of five full-time instructional positions. Between layoffs and reducing hours, the latest estimates by ANwSU figure that the cuts will affect 11 staffers.

After proposing a new budget last month, board members stressed that it was paramount that the board communicate effectively with voters, to demonstrate why it was necessary to pass a budget that would necessitate higher taxes.

“We did all the things we could to get the message out,” board member Neil Kamman said on Wednesday. “We had board members on the phone or on the street talking to people, and we used social media the best that we could.”

Kamman drafted a list of frequently asked questions, along with charts and figures explaining where each dollar of the budget would go, and posted the document on the school’s website. The district also sent a flier to ANwSU residents that explained how this budget draft differed from its original incarnation, and the teachers’ association and PTA organized a call center to get out the vote.

Kamman described the public relations effort as “moderately successful.”

“I think we were successful in that the board and administration addressed what we could control in the budget, and explaining the factors that were outside of our control,” Kamman said.

O’Brien concurred that the messaging effort garnered results, even if many residents did vote against the budget.

“There are always some people who don’t get the information for one reason or another, sometimes by choice,” O’Brien said. “I think they did have a good choice.”

However board members of district officials characterized it, the get-out-the-vote effort accomplished its goal — the budget passed by more than 100 votes.

This time around, three towns voted in favor, while two rejected it. The town-by-town vote total is as follows: Addison, 97-83 against; Ferrisburgh, 253-210 for; Panton, 53-43 against; Vergennes, 250-193 for; Waltham, 58-31 for.

Voters in Ferrisburgh on Tuesday also approved a $3.5 million spending plan for Ferrisburgh Central School (see story on Page 1A).

In an email thread that included all district staff, the VUHS board, several board members and faculty expressed exhilaration (and relief) that the budget passed.

“The community has expressed clear support, for which I am very appreciative,” Kamman wrote.

Board chair Kurt Haigis tempered the comments of support by urging those in the ANwSU community to remember how the cuts will affect staff at VUHS.

“While it may be satisfying to have the vote behind us, let’s not forget that there were individuals in our community that have lost their jobs, or have had their livelihood affected,” Haigis wrote. “Please be sensitive to their feelings.”

Teacher Pam Taylor offered a similar sentiment.

“This is bittersweet,” she wrote. “It is a great relief but sad for my colleagues who have lost their jobs.”

TAX IMPACT

While voters approved a budget that is lower than current spending, residents will see tax rates go up. This is because of a projected smaller number of students at VUHS and tax rate adjustments made by the Legislature this session. Shortly before adjourning last week, legislators set the statewide residential property tax rate increase at 4 cents, and the non-residential rate increase at 7.5 cents.

District officials estimated the school tax rate increase under the new budget to be 14.34 percent over last year’s budget, down from an 18.53 percent increase in the original proposed budget.

Because of their household income level, around two-thirds of ANwSU homeowners are eligible for property tax prebates, according to the latest available Vermont Department of Taxes data, and will not feel the full brunt of any tax increase.

While the passage of a budget is undoubtedly a success for the school board and ANwSU administrators, a bleak fiscal future lies ahead.

The budget passed Tuesday will retire the debt left over from the 2013 fiscal year, which totals about $546,000. District officials are anticipating an additional deficit of around $500,000 at the end of the current fiscal year, due to much higher than expected special education costs.

The district has also not yet received a completed audit of fiscal year 2012-13 spending at VUHS, which could highlight further financial problems.

Like many schools in Addison County and across the state, VUHS is grappling with a declining enrollment. The school had more than 650 students in 2008. Next year, it will have fewer than 500 — a loss of about 21 students per year.

With fewer students, the cost per pupil is higher. In turn, this places an additional burden on taxpayers.

Kamman said the new budget puts the board in a better position to deal with financial troubles next year, adding that it set a precedent of retiring deficits immediately, rather than over several years.

“It makes clear to citizens that the board takes seriously the need to manage public funds well,” Kamman said.

O’Brien said retiring large deficits quickly rather than let them loom over budgets for years to come is a sound financial decision.

“I think it is a good move,” O’Brien said, noting that a deficit of this size is a first for the district.

Kamman added that no one on the board wanted to cut positions, but that it was necessary to keep place with falling enrollment at VUHS.

“Doing so was responsive to the decline in enrollment,” Kamman said. “We’ll have to do that again next year — not necessarily cut positions, but we have to pay attention to enrollment as we craft budgets for future years.”

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