November 26, 2007
By ANDY KIRKALDY
VERGENNES — Vergennes Union High School administrators and board members are looking at a first draft of a 2008-2009 budget that could — if approved in current form by the VUHS board in January and by voters in March — boost spending by about 5 percent to $8.45 million.
Rising energy and health insurance costs are pressuring the bottom line. In 2006 the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union also signed a new contract with its teachers giving raises ranging from about 3 to 5 percent, with the higher raises going to the lower end of the salary scale.
VUHS Principal Ed Webbley said officials have little wiggle room once they factor in those items; expenses mandated by federal and state governments, such as special education; and other uncontrollable costs such as transportation, maintenance, and an almost $700,000 payment on the school’s seven-year-old expansion and renovation bond.
Unless they want to start cutting non-mandatory programs at the 650-student high and middle school like music, art, agriculture and world language, Webbley said officials have about only $100,000 to play with.
“Discretionary monies at our high school are $155 per student,” Webbley said. “We can make decisions on only such a small, small fraction of our whole budget. We can make decisions regarding field trips, books and supplies for students, and after that our discretion pretty much runs the course.”
ANwSU business manager Donna Corcoran projected an 8.5-percent increase in health insurance costs for budgeting purposes, although she said she picked that figure to be safe after being told to expect an increase closer to 7.5 percent.
A health insurance increase of 7.5 percent could lower the projected VUHS budget hike to less than 5 percent, a figure that board members said they would prefer and that Webbley said he will target.
Webbley said the final budget would contain no new programs and only one new teacher, a math instructor he added in an effort to boost the school’s math scores, which have lagged behind its literacy scores. Even with that hire, he said, there is a net loss of one teacher since he came on board in 2005.
Webbley said staffing for core programs like English, science and social studies are at minimum levels already, and that the middle school is already short on domestic arts and physical education instructors.
At the same time, he believes ANwSU residents would not support cuts in other areas.
“We can cut foreign language, which is ugly. No one wants that, and we want to go the other way. We want to add foreign language so we have a language program 7-through-12 … We can cut athletics … Why would be want to cut the best small music program in the state of Vermont?” he said. “Agriculture? One of our better programs over the years, one of our most revered instructors. Those are things that this community doesn’t want us to cut … But if we were to make substantive cuts, that’s where they would have to come.”
Some critics of ANwSU school spending have said that the district has too many administrators, but Webbley disagreed. He said that unlike Essex, where he used to work, the central office has far fewer positions even given the difference in the size of the school systems.
For example, he said, ANwSU has no assistant superintendent or human resources director, and makes do with one business manager for all accounting functions.
“If anything, it’s on the lean side of what I’m used to for an administrative structure,” Webbley said. “We’re a humble operation. I don’t see anything from my experience to suggest we’re way top-heavy.”
At VUHS, Webbley said he and middle school Principal Peter Reynolds assume the same leadership and disciplinary functions as larger teams at Mount Abraham and Middlebury union high schools.
“At the high school we’re way light. We have two principals running the show for a high school and a middle school without any real backup,” he said.
SPLIT VOTE LOOMS
As VUHS officials work on this budget, they are also keeping an eye on the future. Legislators in the 2007 session adopted Act 82, which calls for citizens to in some cases cast two votes on school budgets. The first vote would be on a spending proposal that is equal to or below the state average on per pupil spending plus a 1 percent increase over the increase in inflation. A second vote would be needed for any proposed spending over that first amount.
That law will take full effect next year, and budgets that will be voted on in March of 2009 are subject to those split votes. Corcoran told VUHS officials that to avoid a split vote in 2009, they would have to start by making major cuts this year.
Webbley said that would mean looking at those programs he and the board do not want to touch.
“If we want to avoid the split vote, we have to decrease the budget 5 percent this year, which doesn’t seem realistic,” he said.
One problem with the law, he said, is that it doesn’t take into account spiraling energy costs, mandatory and uncontrollable expenses like special education, or, in the case of VUHS, major pre-existing bond costs.
Webbley noted that the $698,000 bond payment alone is about 8 percent of the preliminary 2008-2009 VUHS budget, while fuel costs have doubled in the past seven years.
“We’ve never had an exceptional per-pupil spending cost around here, but we’re still over the state average,” he said. “We’re obviously a lean operation.”
In the long run, VUHS officials believe Act 82 will force split votes and, possibly, unwelcome choices.
“When you can only make decisions on $155 per student, it shows how absurd Act 82 really is. Because we’re going to have very little say,” Webbley said. “I don’t think in this community we are desperate to avoid the double vote because people in Vergennes and the surrounding communities have been very supportive of us, but if we were forced to make big cuts the only place we could go is personnel. The only thing we could do is cut programs and people.”