Federal bill may offer schools aid

ADDISON COUNTY — A federal jobs bill passed by the U.S. House this week allocates just over $19 million to prevent potential layoffs of Vermont public employees — most of whom would be teachers. It provided a glimmer of hope for officials at local schools this week as they began to grapple with a mandate last week by Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca to cut school spending in Vermont by more than $23 million in fiscal year 2012.
The recommended budget cuts, which came as a response to the Challenges for Change cost-cutting law passed by the Legislature this spring, would reduce school spending by 2.052 percent across the state, and by nearly $1.9 million at schools in Addison County and Brandon.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday signed into law the federal bill that allocates a total of $16 billion to support Medicaid programs and the salaries of public employees. According to the U.S. Department of Education, this allocation will fund an estimated 300 teaching jobs in Vermont alone.
Administrators at local schools on Wednesday said it was too early to know how much help the federal money would provide. They said the spending reductions Vilaseca outlined are easier to focus on at this point.
“To my mind, a new flow of cash coming into the state does not alter the fact that the Legislature passed that law,” said Lee Sease, superintendent of the Addison Central Supervisory Union.
The spending cuts were presented as targeted reductions last week, and school districts and supervisory unions were given until Dec. 15 to report back on whether or not their 2011-2012 budgets would meet the recommendations. But the state Department of Education also said in its memo that if schools failed to meet these reductions, the Legislature would take further action to ensure that the targets would be met.
“We expect most school districts and supervisory unions to take these recommendations seriously,” Vilaseca said last week. “And they will do their best to meet them, just as they responsibly reduced spending last year.”
“We anticipated that there would be a requirement for austerity throughout the state,” said John Castle, superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union.
But last week’s announcement proved that the budget process for the fiscal year 2012 would come up with some austere results. While many schools across the state and in Addison County will be operating this year with level-funded budgets, the state’s recommendations will likely mean those school will have to make significant cuts next year.
Although school boards will not begin talking about the specific cuts to make until the fall, Principal Denise Goodnow of Bingham Memorial School in Cornwall said that her school — which, pending revision, will be asked to cut almost $24,000 from its budget — will be making some difficult choices during this fall’s budget process.
“It doesn’t seem like a lot,” she said, comparing that number to the millions that the state as a whole is being asked to cut. “But in a small school, it will have a bigger impact.”
Reduction targets for individual schools ranged from just over 1 percent to more than 2 percent, with calculations made based on number of students, changes in spending over four years, number of new enrollments and numbers of teachers and staff. The targeted reduction for RNeSU and its member schools was, as of last week, $449,599, a decrease in spending of just over 2 percent across the supervisory union. The challenge, said Castle, would be to reduce spending while maintaining a range of opportunities for students in the supervisory union.
“The question is, ‘How do we come through this process without diminishing the quality of education?’” he said. “We will do the best we can to be as fiscally responsible as possible.”
Area superintendents said that there were no clear answers on how each school would be approaching the budget reductions when the boards began discussions this fall, but that budget discussions would be starting a full month earlier than usual due to the December deadline set by the Department of Education.
It was already clear that, regardless of this year’s federal funding allocations, the spending targets for fiscal year 2012 would force school boards across the state to make decisions about educational priorities that would have an impact in years to come.
“When (the state) initially portrayed Challenges for Change, there was a sense that we would find a way to do more with less,” Castle said. “The reality is that we will have to do less with less.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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