VUES board adopts level spending plan

VERGENNES — Although the face value of the Vergennes Union Elementary School budget will look bigger, residents of Vergennes, Panton on Waltham will be asked on Town Meeting Day this year to approve a little less elementary school spending than in 2009.
That’s because the 2010-2011 VUES budget will include money previously voted on separately in the three union towns’ ID board (essentially elementary school board) budgets.
Last year, about $349,500 was included in the Vergennes, Panton and Waltham ID budgets. That amount funded the towns’ share of Addison Northwest Supervisory Union’s Early Essential Education program, plus VUES buses and crossing guards.
Voters in those three towns in 2009 also approved dissolving those boards, and those funds are this year included in the roughly $3.9 million 2010-2011 VUES budget the school’s board adopted on Tuesday.
The combined total of the three 2009-2010 ID budgets and the $3.56 million 2009-2010 VUES budget? $3.9 million — the same as the proposed 2010-11 VUES budget.
In fact, noted Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Tom O’Brien, the VUES budget this year is actually $1,103 less than last year’s combined total of the four budgets.
The proposed Vergennes Union High School budget of $8.9 million is also essentially level-funded, but residents in the three VUES towns can expect their school taxes to increase. For one, the statewide property tax is increasing. Also, declining enrollment at VUES means that less state funding to support the school, and that more tax revenue will be needed to meet expenses.
Assuming both the VUHS and VUES budgets pass, and that the Legislature adopts the latest recommendation for the statewide property tax rate, ANwSU officials estimate that:
• Panton’s residential school tax rate would rise 1 cent, from $1.59 to $1.60.
That increase translates to $10 per $100,000 of assessed value, assuming the property owner does not qualify for tax relief.
• Waltham’s residential school tax rate would rise 4 cents. from $1.43 to $1.47.
That increase translates to $40 per $100,000 of assessed value, assuming the property owner does not qualify for tax relief.
• Vergennes’ residential school tax rate would rise 7 cents, from $1.24 to $1.31.
That increase translates to $70 per $100,000 of assessed value, assuming the property owner does not qualify for tax relief.
O’Brien said the level elementary school spending comes from the usual hard work of VUES Principal Sandy Bassett and the school’s board, which made across-the-board “cutbacks in all non-personnel areas,” such as books, supplies and travel. The school also expects to realize some energy savings from an insulation effort.
“VUES is consistently a frugal budget,” O’Brien said.
Bassett said given the expected increase in the statewide property tax, he and the board were determined to present a spending plan with no increase, or a decrease.
“When we went into this budget … I knew that (any increase) would be in addition to whatever additional levy that the state was going to assess anyway,” he said. “So we came in a less-than-zero percent.”
Bassett said he and the board knew that the choices were making personnel cuts or “cutting to the bone in operating costs,” and with the cooperation of VUES teachers they were able to find savings, including a one-year hold on all technology purchases.
“I went to the faculty and presented the options,” Bassett said. “They get it. They understand.”
The principal said he is happy to be able to present what he believes is another responsible budget to Waltham, Vergennes and Panton taxpayers.
“These communities have been incredibly loyal to this school,” he said, “and the way you reciprocate for that is you try to put out a quality education for their children, and you budget extremely conscientiously.”
The one new element in proposed VUES spending is a $10,283 bond payment for the Vergennes city pool. That payment will be the last unfinished item of business left for the Vergennes ID board. ANwSU officials have agreed with Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley that it will be cheaper for taxpayers to run the payment through a school budget rather than a municipal budget.
O’Brien said the Vergennes ID board could not be kept operating to make the last payment, due in December, because residents had voted to dissolve it “in anticipation of the board’s ceasing to exist at the end of this school year.”
Of course, the shift to the VUES budget means a city expense, however small, would be shared by Panton and Waltham voters. Officials also noted that most of the VUES students are from Vergennes, meaning it’s fair to say that less than half of the money is really at issue. Given that fact and the overall context of the budget, O’Brien said he did not think including the payment in the budget was unreasonable.
“That $10,000 in the greater scheme of things is not a lot of money. Its impact on the tax rate won’t be significant,” he said.
O’Brien said the ID board, which still owns the pool but is negotiating with city officials to transfer ownership, will also write to Vergennes aldermen to request a concession in exchange for putting the payment in the VUES budget — that Panton and Waltham residents be allowed to pay lower city-resident rates to use the pool this summer.

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