Pupil count falls at OV, budget looks grim

BRANDON — The Otter Valley Union School Board must feel like Sisyphus, a mortal in Greek mythology who was cursed to ceaselessly roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this throughout eternity. Such is the effort to fund local schools in the face of state tax increases and unfunded mandates.
The first public meeting on the proposed OV budget for 2010-2011 was held in the school auditorium on Dec. 16. While only about 12 people were in attendance, expect that number to grow in the coming weeks.
Like last year, the board thought it would have to cut 3-4 percent, roughly $400,000, from the annual operating budget this year — a difficult decision that involves staff reductions and increases in class size.
Last year’s budget talks were a lesson in democracy as many residents voiced their opinions in the face of $500,000 in staff reductions and lobbied to keep the French program, which remained relatively intact.
Earlier this month, the board learned that OV’s equalized pupil count dropped by over 7 percent — which reduces state funding — and an increase in the statewide education property tax by 2.2 percent to accommodate an increase in school spending and weakening property values. Together these submarined the board’s plans to put together a budget that would result in no tax increase.
“We made some really hard sacrifices and it didn’t lead to the outcome we wanted, which was to level taxes,” said board chair Jim Rademacher.
Due to the decrease in per pupil state funds and the increase in the property tax, the board would have had to propose more than $1 million in budget cuts — 9.6 percent — in order to keep taxes at their current rate.
“We believe that to look at a $1 million cut would be disastrous,” Rademacher said. So taxes will go up, but personnel will still have to be cut from the budget in order to stay in line with the declining enrollment. The board is proposing cutting a full-time social studies teacher, full-time guidance counselor, full-time science teacher, a part-time business teacher, and one quarter of the administration/principal spending line item, totaling $337,400 in cuts.
Class sizes will then increase from an average of between 12-15 students to 16-24 students in those areas where personnel will be cut.
Other reductions are proposed with 10 percent reduction across all departments in expenses, and cuts to substitutes, professional development, co-curricular travel, the summer school/after school program and the percussion program. The total of those proposed cuts is $72,600.
“We feel we’ve been responsible in keeping our staff on par with the needs of our students,” Rademacher said. “This was a very painful process and we don’t anticipate that this will be the last of these discussions.”
That’s because enrollment will continue to drop over the coming years. Finance committee chair Ellen Kurrelmeyer said the proposed cuts would amount to a possible nine cent increase in the school tax rate, which would translate to roughly $180 more in taxes to a family in the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union with a $200,000 home.
But some people think that’s O.K. In fact, parent Monda Kelly told the board it should try and save teaching jobs and let the public decide what it wants to spend on education.
“It’s déjà vu all over again and I feel very disheartened,” she said. “I have faith in us that we will vote on a budget for our students. $180 a month is a drop in the bucket. I’d rather have my kids educated and pay additional taxes.”
But not everyone feels that way. Brandon residents Lyn and Bill Orth wrote to the board expressing their views on the budget as they could not attend the Dec. 16 meeting.
“Given the state of the (national) and Vermont economy, the job losses being incurred, the rise of part-time employment, reductions in retirement benefits, rising healthcare costs, and looming federal and state income tax increases, the idea of increasing taxes or even maintaining their current Otter Valley property tax rate is not acceptable,” the Orths wrote. “Cuts of a minimum of $1 million in the Otter Valley budget should be made.”
School board member Dick White of Brandon said the board looked at the local economic reality when proposing the cuts, including declining enrollment and jobs lost through the closing of the Tubbs furniture factory and Nexus electronic plant last year.
“One of the reasons for cutting teachers is because we don’t have the students,” he explained. “We have some classes with six or seven students. That’s great for kids, but it’s not very cost effective. We have to look at the total picture. A lot of jobs are gone and we have to think about that.”

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