UD-3 board revises cutting strategy for 2011-12 budget

MIDDLEBURY — UD-3 school officials will explore the consequences of building a 2011-2012 spending plan that is 2 percent less than the current year’s budget.
It’s a sobering assignment, but somewhat less formidable than the task that had been mapped out for the UD-3 budget committee last spring. The panel and UD-3 administrators had been directed to develop a 2011-2012 budget reflecting a 3.5-percent decrease compared to current spending for Middlebury Union Middle School and High School. That would’ve translated into a $558,852 cut.
But UD-3 directors at their Tuesday evening meeting narrowly elected to target the lesser 2-percent ($341,565) spending cut, in part because it is in line with the “Challenges for Change” guideline handed down this past winter by the Douglas administration, Legislature and Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca.
Addison Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Lee Sease noted that a 2-percent reduction will still likely mean more than a $341,565 cut in spending, because of cost-of-living salary adjustments and inflation. It should also be noted that negotiations continue for a new contract for all ACSU teachers. As recently reported by the Addison Independent, teachers just began their second year without a new pact.
Adding to the financial confusion — but potentially in a good way — is a recently passed federal jobs bill that is expected to funnel $19 million in aid to Vermont to “preserve jobs in public education.” But the UD-3 portion of that money remains unknown and school directors believe the money is not likely to be distributed at least until the state Legislature reconvenes next January. Most Vermont school boards — UD-3 included — tend to finish their budget planning by late fall in order to have the information ready for Town Meeting Day in March.
“(January) would be well beyond the point by which you must approve a budget,” Sease told UD-3 directors.
UD-3 board member Tom Beyer cautioned that school districts should not necessarily count on the $19 million to provide a lot of budget relief.
“This a political football,” he said. “The governor has at least gone on record as saying that he’d like to have that $19 million applied to the teachers’ pension fund, so that not a penny of it would be spent on this.”
Beyer also noted that the Legislature has a track record of waiting until late April, or early May, before firming up state-aid-for-education figures.
“We shouldn’t count on a penny (of the $19 million) as we go through the budgeting process,” Beyer said.
Board member Devin McLaughlin argued that a similar cloud of confusion hovers around the Challenges for Change recommendation of a 2-percent cut. He noted there will be a new governor and potentially many new legislators who might decide to make some changes to the Challenges law.
“I think everyone needs to recognize that all of this is speculative, which is really frustrating,” McLaughlin said.
Board members were almost evenly split on whether to build the new budget with a 2-percent cut or the original idea of a 3.5-percent reduction.
Beyer advocated for the latter.
“It would seem to me that the rationale for going to 3.5 percent was a reasonably clear rationale,” he said. “It was intended to end up with a budget to go to the voters that would result in a zero tax increase.”
He added it would be easier late in the budgeting process to ratchet back a 3.5-percent budget decrease than it would be to augment a 2-percent cut.
McLaughlin argued for targeting a 2-percent cut. He noted the Challenges for Change recommendation came out after the board set its 3.5-percent reduction goal, a fact he said justifies revisiting the topic.
“Overshooting the Challenges for Change number makes little sense to me, given how difficult it is going to be to get to that number,” McLaughlin said.
Others questioned the merits of planning for a 3.5-percent cut, since such a cut could not guarantee there would be no education tax hikes in all seven ACSU towns. Factors like enrollment and the Common Level of Appraisal provision of the Act 68 education funding law mean there is not a level playing field when it comes to school taxes.
“Each town is different,” board member Mark Perrin said. “All the towns are going to have different tax rates.”
Given that disparity in tax rates, Beyer argued it made more sense to proceed with a 3.5-percent reduction goal.
“It is my concern that even if we got this to 2 percent — which still seems draconian at one level, but is at least being applied across the board across the state — that what we have is still a situation where we may have anywhere from 9 percent, 5 percent or 6 percent (school tax increases). And in an environment where inflation is 1 percent, and in which salaries have not kept pace at all with that, and the people in our community who are paying these taxes are really suffering, it is my recommendation that… we stay with the 3.5 percent.”
Board member Peter Conlon agreed that the panel should stick with a 3.5-percent reduction target, but noted it is a target that the budget committee could study and ultimately recommend a different course of action.
“We are leaving the charge with the committee to look at that and see what the impact is,” Conlon said, “and there is no reason the committee can’t come back and say, ‘We looked at it, we recommend that we change that goal, it was just too much,’ and move on from there. For me, it’s more of a place to start for the committee.”
But UD-3 board members on Tuesday voted 5-4 in favor of having the budget committee aim for a 2-percent reduction. That panel will work with UD-3 administrators in the coming weeks to determine how the cut would affect staffing and programs at the schools. Then it will be up to the UD-3 board to determine what reductions it believes the schools and the community could live with while doing the least amount of damage to the quality of education.
“It is going to come down to some very difficult looks and sees,” Beyer said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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