Residents back school spending proposals

ADDISON COUNTY — Addison County and Brandon-area voters backed all five local union school budgets and the Patricia Hannaford Career Center spending plan in Town Meeting Day balloting.
The only local school budget to be defeated was that of the Bridport Central School, which lost by four votes, 188-184. Hancock residents also voted, 41-24, to dissolve their contract with Granville to operate the Granville-Hancock Village School and to tuition their elementary school students out of town. (See stories.)
Some other votes were close: The Addison Central School budget won by six votes, 153-147, and the Orwell Village School plan passed by nine votes, 71-62.
Among the five union school budget  — Mount Abraham, Otter Valley and Vergennes union high schools; the UD-3 budget, including Middlebury union high and middle schools; and Vergennes Union Elementary School — the closest vote came on the VUHS budget, which passed by 731-687, or 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent.
Other margins of victory ranged from a 67-vote margin, 56 to 44 percent, for VUES, to a comfortable 1,776-vote margin, or 66 percent to 34 percent, for the career center.
Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Tom O’Brien said he could only speak for Vergennes-area residents, but noted that the county seemed to follow a statewide trend of voters backing responsible budgeting despite economic uncertainty.
“I attribute (the budgets passing) to support of the educational programs we have in place here, and education in general,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien also referenced controversial suggestions by Gov. Jim Douglas that residents consider rejecting school budgets that had already been adopted by local boards.
“Despite the comments from higher places, they respect the work the school boards do in creating responsible budgets to further their educational programs,” he said. “Considering where we are economically, and the policies in place, this outcome … is a declaration that folks ought to pay attention to.”
The county’s voters favored a roughly $3.32 million Hannaford Career Center spending proposal, 3,649-1,918. That figure represents an increase of about 3.8 percent from the current budget.
The tuition rate for those choosing to attend the PHCC is projected to increase 5 percent to $10,271 — a hike of $493 per student.
The $121,620 overall budget increase is primarily driven by contracted salary and benefit increases, said PHCC Director Lynn Coale. The career center board and its teachers ratified a new, four-year agreement at the end of 2008 through which faculty will receive the same health insurance benefits they currently enjoy, along with annual increase of 4 percent in base pay. The contract retroactively includes the 2008-2009 academic year.
Addison Central Supervisory Union voters backed a roughly $15.5 million UD-3 budget by 1,247 votes to 755 votes, or 62 percent in favor to 38 percent opposed.
That budget will boost current spending by 3.4 percent, with more than half the increase due to a new state law that required ACSU officials to move $280,000 of transportation costs from elementary school budgets to the UD-3 spending plan.
The approved budget saved $88,000 by eliminating the MUMS living arts program and its teacher, a move administrators made to avoid a spending increase that would trigger a double vote under Act 82, a new state law that requires school districts to hold two votes on their budgets if they exceed a state-prescribed inflationary threshold.
In the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union, voters approved Mount Abraham Union High School’s roughly $12.8 million spending plan, a budget that marks a 0.87 percent decrease in spending. Voters in the towns of New Haven, Monkton, Starksboro, Lincoln and Bristol approved the budget 1,339-876, or about 60 percent to 40 percent.
The budget plan includes a 2.07 percent increase in per-pupil spending, despite the drop in overall spending, because of a projected decrease of roughly 35 in next year’s student body.
Homestead tax rates in Lincoln, Monkton and New Haven are projected to drop by six, seven and two cents, respectively. The tax rate in Starksboro is estimated to go up by four cents, while Bristol’s residential rate could rise by a little more than six cents.
Voters in the seven Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union towns passed the Otter Valley Union High School budget, 863-724, or 54.3-45.7 percent.
RneSU Clerk Janet Mondlak said this was the first year that OV ballots were electronically tabulated using a machine instead of being hand counted.
“We felt it was faster,” she said. “It went very smoothly. We felt it was very accurate.”
The $11.1 million OV spending plan represented a 0.98 percent increase over the current budget and will lower the local education tax by one cent to $1.23.
Faced with falling revenues and dwindling enrollment in the face of rising operating costs, the OV board made some unpopular cuts, including staff reductions in the technical and careers programs, the French program, food service, family and consumer science, health and English. Those cuts saved $245,000 and resulted in a loss of 4.83 full-time equivalent staff jobs.
The board also decided after much public input to start charging admission for JV and varsity sporting events.
Yet to be resolved is a debate over administrative salaries. Many voters feel that OV does not need three administrators at the school, but others say that Principal Dana Cole-Levesque and associate principals Jim Avery and Nancy Robinson are a necessary part of OV’s workings.
A motion surfaced at the board’s Jan. 8 meeting to freeze administrative salaries, but was rejected. The administrative contracts are up for review next year, and the board may examine administrative needs at OV more closely in the coming months as finances remain an issue.
ANwSU voters backed an $8.89 million plan that called for the largest percentage increase among the local union schools —  4.9 percent — by the smallest margin — 44 votes.
But school officials said they had little choice in making their proposal because they entered the budget debate facing a $224,000 deficit due to last winter’s soaring fuel bills and trouble with the school’s heating and ventilation system, which required expensive and unbudgeted maintenance and repairs.  
Most of the remaining increase was in a contracted raise for teachers, which averages about 4 percent. Officials said staff pay makes up almost 80 percent of the VUHS budget.
Most voters in Ferrisburgh (302-233), Vergennes (192-178) and Waltham (55-37) backed the VUHS budget.
Most voters in Addison (141-159) and Panton (41-80) said no.
In commingled balloting, Vergennes, Panton and Waltham voters supported a $3.54 million VUES budget by a vote of 321-254. That spending level will be 1.7 percent higher than the current budget. 
Personnel changes are helping VUES officials keep proposed 2009-2010 spending in line: 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.
VUES voters also backed, 370-204, a proposed $200,000 loan to make energy-efficiency and structural upgrades to two wings of the school. That loan will be paid off over five years, and officials estimate the efficiency upgrades will pay for themselves in lower fuel costs over about a decade and a half.
Note: Reporters Katie Flagg, John Flowers and Lee Kahrs contributed to this report. 

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