Mt. Abe board aims to level-fund school budget

BRISTOL — The Mount Abraham Union High School board of directors Tuesday continued taking tentative steps toward a draft spending plan that reflects a zero-percent increase in educational spending — a goal that board chair Lanny Smith said leaves the board “between a rock and a hard place.”“We don’t have anything left to cut,” said Smith. Last year, voters in the five towns that feed into Mount Abe approved a roughly $12.8 million spending plan, down just less than 1 percent from spending in 2007-2008. One of the tough choices the board could face this year will be between ramping up support for the math department and finally undertaking long-delayed renovations to the Bristol school’s entryway. Mount Abe Principal Andy Kepes made a plea at Tuesday night’s board meeting for added staff in the high school’s math program. He pointed out that the school has propped up reading and writing supports over the last few years, and said he thinks that work has paid off.The “dream,” Kepes said, is to assign one staff member as a “math consultant,” who would build more math instruction into other part of the high school’s curriculum. He’d also like to build more “team time” into the schedule for math teachers who teach the same courses, a plan that would require bringing on another teacher to pick up addition classes. Kepes hopes these two teachers could also focus on special education and remedial math instruction, bringing up to speed students who’ve come into the high school with skills that are lagging.One of the positions would be a “swap,” a matter of making a trade off from another department to the math curriculum. The other job, though, would require creating a new position at the high school.At the same time, the school is eyeing a lobby renovation that has been talked about for years. School administrators are worried that, because visitors to the school can’t be identified immediately upon entering the building, the current lobby set-up poses a security risk to the school. A newly designed entryway would more clearly direct visitors to the office and also enable staff to monitor visitors to the school.But Kepes on Tuesday said the lobby took a back seat, in his opinion, to the priority of adding another math teacher to the payroll. “We want to focus on reading, writing and math because that’s where you get the most bang for your buck,” Kepes said. “The test results are just gravy. When we help kids in these areas, our test results are going to go up, even if we don’t focus on the tests. But that’s just an extra. I don’t give a hoot when the state looks at our NECAP scores. This is flat out improving instruction in the building.” Both the extra math position and the lobby improvements, however, could represent new spending in a year when the board is faced with almost certain cuts. Still, a few glimmers of good news Tuesday night came in the form of possible savings on the school’s biomass fuel and some energy improvements.The board learned that the school could qualify for federal economic stimulus money that could, for one year only, cut its bill for wood chips to fuel the school’s biomass boiler by roughly 40 percent. Also on the school board’s radar is a series of grant applications going out this week to fund energy improvement projects in the building, also using money from the federal stimulus program.Though that money would reflect a one-time savings, Smith said it might give the board a bit of flexibility heading into a particularly tight budget season. The board is looking at mandatory increases in teacher salaries under teacher contracts, and the school is also facing another likely small dip in enrollment next year, which means the board will almost certainly have to make cuts to level-fund education spending.Smith said after the meeting that those cuts will likely entail cutting positions from the school’s payroll. Just which positions, and how many, has not yet been determined. As of Tuesday, the draft budget placed Mount Abe $7,000 above target for spending. The budget included Kepes’ plan for hiring an additional math teacher. The numbers are still in flux, Addison Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Evelyn Howard warned, because the district is still waiting to receive “equalized pupil” numbers from the state that will drive how much money per student the school receives from the state. The Mount Abe school board will next meet on Tuesday, Dec. 15, at 6:30 p.m. at the high school.

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