Education budgets under pressure: state urges boards to limit spending

BRISTOL — State education officials are pushing local school boards to hold the line on school spending this year, urging school districts to level fund or even decrease spending at local schools.
But for districts that have already whittled down school spending to bare bones expenses, the recommendation — which came last week in the form of a letter from Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca and Commissioner of Finance and Management Jim Reardon — poses a huge challenge as school boards gear up for budget season. It will almost certainly mean staff cuts are in order at local schools.
“We are trying to accommodate the commissioner’s request,” said Greg Burdick, the business manager at the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union. “It is not pretty, because there’s not a lot of fluff left in any of our budgets.”
Reardon and Vilaseca’s letter to school superintendents, principals, business managers and school board members was drafted in light of a national recession that Vilaseca and Reardon wrote has severely weakened the Vermont economy. Through the first quarter of fiscal year 2010, the state’s General Fund revenues are down 10.6 percent compared with the first quarter of last year.
Vilaseca and Reardon also pointed out that federal stimulus money that gave state and local school districts a one-time boost will disappear entirely over the next two years. Meanwhile, the state’s contribution to the Education Fund is down, resulting in a $51.7 million decrease from fiscal year 2009.
So the two school officials pressed school boards to contain costs at the local level. This year saw a statewide increase in education spending of 2 percent, but Vilaseca and Reardon said in budgeting for next year school boards will need to do more to keep spending in line. They hope more districts will follow in the footsteps of the more than 90 districts in Vermont that last year had no growth or shrinkage in their spending plans.
Burdick said the commissioner’s letter comes as a huge challenge. He is helping build the budgets for the supervisory union’s six schools, and in every school except one — Starksboro’s Robinson Elementary School — student enrollment is declining.
What’s left to cut, Burdick said, is staff.
Vilaseca and Reardon acknowledged that this might be the place in school budgets where local boards will need to make “difficult choices.” The student-to-adult ratio in Vermont schools is five-to-one, meaning Vermont schools have more adults per student than any other state. The commissioner said staffing numbers will need to change to reflect the state’s declining student enrollment.
But as Burdick said, school districts that don’t have a lot of “fluff” to cut will be facing tough decisions come December and January, when most local school districts will finalize their proposed 2010-2011 spending plan.
That’s the case for school directors at Mt. Abraham Union High School. The board met Tuesday night to review guiding principles for revising the school’s spending plan, and to digest the tough challenge posed by the education commissioner. The board charged the high school’s administration earlier this fall with keeping educational spending at the same level as last year.
Last year, directors approved a $12.8 million spending plan, a budget that represented a 0.87 percent decrease in total spending at the high school and a 2.07 percent increase in per-pupil spending.
“We’re going to try to do it again this year,” said school board Chair Lanny Smith. “Whether we can or not, I don’t know.”
Smith pointed out that the school has already made significant efforts to contain costs. During the 2008-2009 school year, the union high school was 24th on a list of 28 union high school districts in the state in terms of per-pupil spending, with just four union high schools in Vermont having a lower per-pupil cost. (Middlebury Union High School fell at number 11 on that list, Otter Valley Union High School ranked 19th, and Vergennes Union High School, at 26th, had the third-lowest per pupil costs of any union high school in the state.)

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