Mt. Abe holds line on budget

BRISTOL — The Mount Abraham Union High School board of directors on Tuesday agreed to send a $13,233,629 spending plan for the 2010-2011 school year to voters in the five towns in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union on Town Meeting Day.
Total spending in the proposed budget is down 1.72 percent from the current year’s numbers, and matches this year’s educational spending dollar-for-dollar. Declining student enrollment, however, means the level-funded budget would still reflect a roughly 6 percent increase in per pupil spending.
Education property taxes would rise between 3 and 13 cents in the five towns.
The board held firm on its pledge to send a level-funded budget to voters, though keeping educational spending in check meant some cuts at the high school.
One of the biggest changes would come in the social studies department, where cuts have eliminated one and a half positions — a change that saves $69,000.
Administrators also eliminated just more than half of an English position for a savings of $29,323; shaved $20,000 from the budget in transportation for field trips and sports; and cut $17,000 in spending for computer equipment and software, among other cuts.
The voted was unanimous, though Chair Lanny Smith said no one relishes the cuts. The fat’s already been removed from the spending plan, Smith said, and now the board is “cutting the bone.”
The social studies department is hardest hit in terms of personnel, Smith said, because class sizes have gone down slightly, and the administration hasn’t made any cuts in the department yet. Though a group of students have organized a Facebook group rallying behind one teacher’s position, Smith said the board doesn’t consider specific employees when they approve the budget, and just focuses on the numbers.
“We don’t want this to be a personal thing,” Smith said.
Overall, Smith is optimistic about the quality of education at Mount Abe, though he said the board is between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
“We’ve got some great teachers, some great administrators. We’re going to put together a great education system for the kids. But we’re going to do it with less money,” he said.
In addition to warning the proposed school budget, the school board on Tuesday night also discussed possible changes to the way food services are delivered at Mount Abe. The board will consider whether to look at an outside vendor to deliver the service, in the hopes of saving money. But long-time food service workers who spoke at the meeting voiced concerns that a new vendor could cut out their health insurance or lower their wages.
The board discussed the question of food services in more depth in executive session, though no decisions came out of that closed meeting.
Despite the fact that educational spending is holding level, property tax rates are projected to rise in each of the Five Towns.
Property tax rates in Lincoln and Monkton are projected to rise 13 cents (7.3 and 8.5 percent, respectively), Starksboro could see a 10-cent hike (7.8 percent), New Haven’s rate is estimated to rise 9 cents (5.1 percent), and Bristol is slated to see a 3-cent rise in 2010-2011 (2.3 percent).
School board members on Tuesday night expressed frustration that, despite their best efforts to keep spending in check, property tax rates will still rise. The hikes are due in large part to a change in the state education tax rate; the education department recommended a 2-cents increase but the Legislature has yet to act on it.
Another factor has to do with individual towns’ common levels of appraisal, or CLA. The CLA is used to equalize education taxes statewide, and ensure that properties of equal value pay equal taxes. The CLA is designed so that residents in towns recently reappraised will not pay taxes at a higher rate than residents in towns that have not been reappraised in a few years.
“There’s a great deal of uncertainty about how the legislators are going to resolve the issue of the shortfall of revenues across the whole state,” said Addison Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Evelyn Howard. “We’ve tried to stay focused on what we can control.”
Howard said that boards will have to do as much as possible to explain to voters the work they’ve done, and just what is and is not within a school board’s control.
“I think that it requires us to do as much as we can about explaining the hard work of boards to try to manage this to the degree that we can,” Howard said. “We also realize there’s a lot that’s happening at the state level that will be the ultimate determination.”
Smith agreed, and said that until the state gets serious about controlling education spending, local school boards are in a tough spot.
“We keep cutting, and the taxes go up,” he said. “It’s truly out of our control, and we’re doing the best we can.”

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