Otter Valley dials back budget cuts

BRANDON — Otter Valley Union High School board members dialed back severe spending plan cuts at a board meeting last week, instead settling for an estimated $322,000 in cuts that will spare, in part, the French and tech education programs.
The board will meet again on Jan. 7 to vote on the $11 million “Plan B” spending proposal, which will be put before voters on Town Meeting Day. While minor revisions still need to be made to the budget, Otter Valley Principal Dana Cole-Levesque said that he expected full board support for the spending plan at the Jan. 7 meeting.
The proposed spending plan will decrease the Otter Valley homestead tax rate by 1 cent, to $1.23 per $100 of assessed property value, the board estimated last week. That is roughly in line with the board’s goal of keeping the tax rate equal.
But when board members dug into spending plan discussions in earnest last month, it was per-pupil spending, and not homestead tax rates, that the board was most interested in holding steady.
In the face of a shrinking student population — more than 100 students will graduate this year, and a smaller seventh-grade class is slated to replace them — keeping per-pupil spending level would have required around $500,000 in cuts from the administration’s initially proposed spending plan.
Those cuts would have axed the school’s tech education program (which includes shop and drivers’ education classes) and eliminated the French program — a prospect that drew around 85 members of the public to a Dec. 17 hearing.
It was in the wake of this meeting, Cole-Levesque said, that the board charged administrators with going back to reevaluate spending plan cuts.
At last Tuesday’s board meeting — a meeting that drew around 50 citizens, a large crowd according to Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Bill Mathis — the board again heard extended public comment.
“I was just impressed with the genuine democracy of the thing,” said Mathis. “Citizens came out, they spoke their piece, the board listened and they made adjustments. It was done with diplomacy.” 
Though the meeting lasted for more than four hours, Mathis said that the board held a thoughtful discussion about remaining responsible to both taxpayers and students.
The majority of the $322,000 in proposed cuts comes from personnel changes and program reductions. The proposed cuts include:
• Cutting half of a food service position.
• Trimming half of a family consumer science teaching position.
• Losing an English position by attrition.
• Trimming a teaching job in the youth career awareness program — originally slated for a full reduction — to a part-time position.
• Reducing the tech education staff from two positions to one. (Two-thirds of that position will be designated as a shop teacher, and one-third as a drivers’ education teacher.)
• Reducing the French teacher’s position to a part-time position.
The French program received a fair amount of attention in the public debate, Mathis said. The program was originally targeted for reduction due to low enrollment. Now, students in French 2, 3 and 4 will be able to finish their courses, though French 5 may no longer be an option for upper-level students.
In addition to personnel changes, budget cuts also call for:
• Freezing co-curricular salaries for coaches.
• Reducing department head stipends.
• Reducing spending on athletic uniforms.
• Eliminating the jazz chorale stipend.
• Trimming administrative operating expenses.
Still in the air, Mathis said, is about $21,000 for summer school and after school programs. Mathis expressed concern for students served by these programs, but said that administrators aren’t sure that “we’re getting the best bang for the buck for those programs.”
Now, according to Mathis, the district is looking into alternate funding mechanisms to keep the programs afloat.
Cole-Levesque said that the finance committee would be meeting before the Jan. 7 meeting to review an additional $50,000 in cuts. Those cuts could remove a guidance counselor or eliminate an aide for at-risk students.
“I think we’re going to go back through and do a careful review,” he said. “I think (the $50,000) may come from a number of areas, but no large cut in any one particular area is expected.”
Cole-Levesque said that the process of building a spending plan for the school was particularly difficult this year in light of significant job losses in the Brandon area. Roughly 90 employees were put out of jobs in July, when Brandon-based furniture manufacturer Vermont Tubbs closed. In August, Neo EMS Electronics, also known as Nexus Nano, abruptly laid off all of 47 of its employees.
“The board, in putting this proposal together, has been mindful of the community and the economics of the community, and has struggled to put a budget that reflects a level tax rate out there,” said Cole-Levesque. “It’s made it very difficult.”
Particularly difficult, he said, was the process of balancing financial responsibility with the demands of providing a strong education for Otter Valley’s students.
“We want to make sure that we’re running a school offering the programs that serve the needs of kids best. Whenever you start cutting away from that, it’s a painful balancing act. It’s been hard this year, harder than prior years,” he said.
On that front, Mathis agreed.
“Anything we do now is cutting into bone,” he said.

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