ANwSU boards seek spending hikes from 1.7 to 4.9 percent

VERGENNES — In January directors of the four Addison Northwest Supervisory Union schools approved spending proposals for the 2009-2010 school year that, if approved by voters, would boost budgets by between 1.7 and 4.9 percent.
The projected impact of school spending on the five ANwSU communities’ education property tax rates would vary from a projected decrease of 5 cents per $100 of property in Panton to a 14-cent increase in Addison (see related story). 
In three out of four cases, boards approved the draft budgets in January. But the Ferrisburgh Central School board met on Jan. 8 and made an additional $58,000 of cuts from its December draft to bring the spending increase down from 5.5 percent to 3.4 percent, a move made to avoid a double budget vote under a new Vermont law that takes effect this spring. The act requires school districts vote on proposed spending increases up to a state-mandated limit in one vote, and any amount beyond that in a second vote.
“It was hard for us to get under the two-vote threshold,” said ANwSU business manager Kathleen Cannon. “That was the tough one.”
In the end, the FCS board will be requesting an increase to just a little less than $2.86 million on Town Meeting Day.
The highest percentage spending increase, 4.9, is being asked for by the Vergennes Union High School board, which on Jan. 12 voted to seek a $413,425 hike to $8.89 million.
The Vergennes Union Elementary School Board decided on Jan. 19 to ask Vergennes, Panton and Waltham voters to approve the smallest percentage increase, a 1.7 percent hike of about $60,000 to roughly $3.54 million.
The Addison Central School board on Jan. 15 opted to request a 4.3 percent increase of roughly $77,000 to about $1.89 million.
Last month, the FCS board made about $58,000 of cuts to reach the $2.86 million figure. Moves made included reducing the hours of the school’s full-time technology lab teacher by a half-day, saving about $7,500; cutting one aide devoted to literacy while boosting a literacy teaching position from 80 percent to 100 percent, a net savings of about $9,000; and delaying the purchase of computer hardware, saving about $3,000.
Officials also learned that health insurance costs would not rise, meaning a projected increase of $24,000 could be wiped off the boards.
Factors still driving spending up at FSC include an unavoidable increase of about $45,000 in special education costs and a hike of  $74,500 in its ANwSU assessment.
That assessment is rising, said Principal JoAnn Taft-Blakely, because of lost federal funding for some programs and because there will be more Ferrisburgh students in the ANwSU Early Essential Education program, and the town must pay a greater share of its cost.
Taft-Blakely said the rest of the budget is “very, very tight.” In all, the proposed “Instructional Programs” category, which includes teachers’ salaries and health insurance as well as classroom supplies, is up by only about $19,000, or 1.5 percent, to about $1.2 million.
The biggest problem facing VUHS officials was a $224,000 deficit entering this year due to last winter’s soaring fuel bills and to ongoing trouble with the school’s heating and ventilation system. To handle the problem, VUHS officials slashed almost $200,000 of supplies, equipment and materials from a December draft budget in order to keep their proposed spending increase at 4.9 percent to $8.89 million.
VUHS Co-principal Ed Webbley said the school’s teachers worked hard to keep spending in line given the current budget deficit, which includes $135,000 in higher-than-expected fuel costs alone, with most of the rest attributable to repairs to the heating and ventilation system.
Most of the rest of the increase is in a contracted raise for teachers, which averages about 4 percent. Webbley said staff pay makes up almost 80 percent of the VUHS budget, and board members told administrators to preserve staffing levels.
Within the larger, $121,249 instructional program cut was a $43,000 savings realized by finding a less experienced replacement for veteran agriculture teacher Harmon Boyce, who retired but had been filling in this academic year.
Personnel changes are helping VUES officials keep proposed 2009-2010 spending to $3.54 million: Two veteran teachers have decided to retire.  
VUES Principal Sandy Bassett said their experience will be missed, but that they are at the top of the salary scale, about $20,000 each over the projected starting salary of their replacements.
At the same time, Bassett said projected changes in the student population mean that two aides will no longer be needed, resulting in a similar savings.
Bassett did have to do some juggling. One teacher who will leave is a roving math instructor, a position that will not be replaced. Instead, the principal put that salary into a needed teaching job at the fifth- and sixth-grade level.
In reaching a $1.89 million spending proposal that calls for a 4.3 percent increase, the ACS board had to deal with a combined $78,000 addition to the bottom line because several school employees are expected to opt into school-provided health care coverage and because of a higher projected assessment from the ANwSU office.
Those two increases are being partly offset by two significant decreases. One special education aide will no longer be needed, and ACS and other ANwSU schools will be sharing a speech pathologist with another school district, a savings reflected in a $33,500 decrease in “Student Support Services.”
The heart of the budget, the “Instructional Program” section, including teachers’ salaries plus classroom supplies and equipment, is projected to rise by $18,000 to about $800,600.
That alone would be an increase of about 2.3 percent — enough, said Principal Wayne Howe, to preserve the quality of education at ACS.
Addison’s school has seen a declining enrollment: There are 113 students at ACS now, compared to a high of 145 a few years ago. But Howe said the numbers have not dropped to the point where it is feasible to start cutting teachers. 
 “That’s not really enough to start to lop off a section of a class,” Howe said. “Even though our numbers are down, our costs are staying the same.”

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