Knife sharpened for UD-3 budget

MIDDLEBURY — The UD-3 school board on Tuesday, Oct. 19, will begin asking the public’s help in crafting what district officials predict will be one the most difficult budgets ever put together for Middlebury Union Middle School and High School.
Plans call for the UD-3 board to draft a 2011-2012 budget that reflects a state-recommended 2-percent decrease in net education spending compared to this year’s budget. A 2-percent cut to $15,445,919 in net spending amounts to $341,565. But Addison Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Lee Sease said that because of inflation, school directors will probably have to find $661,000 in reductions.
“This is as tough as it gets,” Sease said of the cuts that will have to be considered.
So tough that the UD-3 board has, for the first time ever, formed a budget subcommittee that is working with school administrators to see how a 2-percent budget might translate into fewer programs, teachers and staff.
Cornwall resident and UD-3 board veteran Peter Conlon is a member of the budget subcommittee. The panel as of Monday had met once, with more gatherings in the offing in anticipation of UD-3 officials presenting the first draft of a 2011-2012 spending plan by early November.
“We always like to have as much input as possible, especially making these difficult decisions,” Conlon said.
It should be noted that UD-3 will not be alone in making difficult budget decisions this year. Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca has asked all districts to present 2011-2012 budgets that are at least 2-percent leaner than this year, in order to adhere to the state Legislature’s “Challenges for Change” cost-cutting directive. Vilaseca has said he wants the schools to find a combined total of $23 million in savings next year.
Sease noted that while school districts aren’t being mandated to come in with 2-percent budget reductions, there will likely be some financial repercussions if the state doesn’t realize the targeted savings.
“There is no penalty if you don’t make the reductions,” Sease said, “but the commissioner has been told that if the schools don’t do it, he’ll have to find (the savings) elsewhere.”
And Sease believes the only way the state would be able to reduce a substantial shortfall at its end would be to adjust the statewide education property tax rate. That, in turn, would force communities to come up with a greater share of school expenses.
Conlon noted that since 68 percent of UD-3’s overall spending is tied up in salaries and benefits, school directors will face some tough choices in order to achieve substantial savings.
“This amount of money that we are being asked to cut from the budget probably cannot be cut without looking at staffing levels at both schools, as well as extra-curricular programs,” Conlon said. “So we really need to hear from people as to what’s important to them in our (grades) 7-12 education.”
There are a combined total of 87 full-time equivalent teaching positions in UD-3, with 31 of those positions at the middle school and 56 at the high schools. There are a combined total of around 65 support staff at MUMS and MUHS.
It should be noted that teachers’ unions and school boards throughout the ACSU are still negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. The previous pact expired June 30, 2009.
“One wild card is definitely the results of negotiations, which are ongoing,” Conlon said.
The ACSU and schools throughout the state have seen declining enrollment. The most recent verified student counts for UD-3 placed the MUHS enrollment at 652 and MUMS at 289, compared with 2004 enrollment of 716 at MUHS and 345 at MUMS.
School directors acknowledged that area residents continue to struggle amid a tough economy, and last March’s budget vote reflected some taxpayer angst and frustration. The spending plan, which reflected a 2.8-percent boost in spending, passed by a 1,070 to 981 tally.
“(The vote) was closer than it had been in some time,” Conlon said. “The Middlebury selectboard brought up its concern about the tax rate in Middlebury, and we certainly heard that. Now we need to hear from more members of the community. And we’d like to hear from the community before we start making specific cuts.”
In some good financial news, the upcoming UD-3 budget will reflect an additional $100,000 in revenues in transportation reimbursement. That’s because the UD-3 spending plan will now reflect the income from busing secondary-age students from each ACSU town to the high school, a revenue that had previously been factored into the elementary school budgets, according to Conlon.
“That will help us because it will lower our estimated education spending,” Conlon said.
School directors are prepared for the potential of many different messages form the citizens at the Oct. 19 UD-3 meeting, set for 6 p.m. in the MUHS library.
“The community may want us to cut more,” Conlon said, “and the community may want us to ignore Challenges for Change and maintain what most believe is a very good 7-12 education system.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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