UD-3 board hears from staff, public on budget

MIDDLEBURY — The UD-3 board on Tuesday heard from more than a dozen teachers and community members who requested that any cuts to the 2011-2012 budget not affect direct educational services to students.
Some advised the board to target extra-curricular activities and administrative positions in the Middlebury district, while others suggested school directors put away the budget cutting knife altogether.
State officials have asked all school districts throughout the state to cut their current education spending by 2 percent for next year, a request that isn’t sitting well with some residents and school leaders.
“I’m not sure that I believe that coming up with a random number from the state is the way to go about building a budget,” Weybridge resident Maggie Ryan told the board. “We should be going about building a budget because this is the program that we, as a community, have decided is important to offer.”
The “random number” to which Ryan was referring is that 2-percent cut in spending state officials have recommended through Act 146, also known at “Challenges for Change.” That directive is aimed at saving $23 million in the next fiscal year.
This year’s UD-3 budget (covering Middlebury Union Middle School and High School) is a little more than $15.4 million. A 2-percent cut for the 2011-2012 academic year would equal roughly $341,600. But factoring in a 1.6-percent inflation rate, school directors will probably have to find almost $600,000 in cuts, said Addison Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Lee Sease.
While Sease said there is no penalty for districts that do not cut their budgets by 2 percent, he believes the state will look to cut in other areas if school districts don’t collectively economize to the tune of $23 million. With that in mind, Sease theorized the state might, for example, raise the statewide education property tax rate, which in turn would boost local property tax rates.
School officials stressed it will take some staff and/or faculty reductions to achieve a savings of $600,000, because 68 percent of the UD-3 budget is related to salaries and benefits. They urged the public to weigh in with their thoughts on what school services they are prepared to sacrifice.
“We really want some direction from you,” Sease told the crowd.
Middlebury resident Laura Asermily, who also serves as her town’s energy coordinator, suggested the UD-3 board look at making some energy efficiency upgrades in its buildings and perhaps pick closer opponents for sports contests as a way of saving fuel.
“We have done a lot with our buildings, but we have far to go in terms of achieving those (energy) efficiencies,” said Asermily.
She also suggested that any district personnel laid off during the budget crunch could be redeployed within the system as directors — thereby maintaining their input without an impact on the budget.
Salisbury resident Carolee Ploof, the parent of three students attending UD-3, urged the board to not quickly target athletics as a place in which to economize. Ploof said all three of her children are involved in school athletics, and all are motivated to do better in school in part because of the realization that poor academic performance could lead to them missing out on sports.
“When I have had to use sports as a carrot to get things done academically, that’s what has propelled them to get going,” Ploof said.
Middlebury resident Larry Knowles said school directors should consider declining the state’s 2-percent cut directive.
“It is the most absurd thing I have heard in a long line of absurd orders you have already been given,” Knowles said. “I would almost be happier to hear you say you’re going to tell the education commissioner and state Legislature, ‘Thank you very much, but we are perfectly happy with the way we’re doing it, and we are prepared to go to our voters and justify the decisions we make based on the needs of our students, the needs of our community and our assessment and evaluation from our own professionals on what’s working best for our schools, than to just come in with an arbitrary 2 percent that is irrelevant to any of the rest of the budgeting process.’”
Ripton resident and MUHS math teacher Tracey Harrington encouraged the UD-3 board “to remember that our primary purpose is a good education; other things can be perceived kind of as a privilege.”
Sara Nadeau, a Cornwall resident and teacher at MUMS, noted that she — like others — invested in homes in the ACSU in part because of the high quality school system.
“My concern is that if we start hacking at what we have set in place, it may affect the great school that we have,” Nadeau said.
Bjarki Sears, an MUHS social studies teacher and vice president of the Middlebury Education Association, said he expected more specific and vocal comments from citizens and teachers once the UD-3 board unveils a list of potential cuts and their financial impacts.
The board’s budget committee plans to draft and present such a list next month, with the overall goal of coming up with a final 2011-2012 budget number in December. Residents in the seven ACSU member towns will vote on the spending plan on Town Meeting Day next March.
Sears invited the UD-3 board to talk to teachers about ideas on easing the budget crunch.
“We encourage you to talk to us and again, not to just to say, “OK, these are the cuts we’ll make, are you OK with them?’” Sears said.
UD-3 board members on Tuesday took an initial step toward reducing next year’s budget. They announced that qualifying veteran teachers will be offered access to two different voluntary early retirement programs. The programs allow the ACSU to assist teachers in buying retirement service years as an inducement for them to leave the payroll. These teachers would then be replaced with more junior teachers earning lower salaries, thereby producing some budget savings.
The board will know by early next year how many teachers declare interest in the early retirement program options.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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