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Orwell school board gears up for deep budget cuts

ORWELL — Across the state, schools are examining their budgets in the wake of the Legislature’s Challenges for Change recommendations. As school boards sit down for discussions, some — like in Orwell — are finding that they’ll have to sharpen the knife even more than originally projected.
“It’s a very tight year,” said Glen Cousineau, chair of the Orwell Village School board, which will be looking to reduce the school’s spending by approximately 10 percent.
Part of this is the Challenges for Change recommendations, proposed by Gov. Jim Douglas, the Legislature and Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca. Vilaseca asked supervisory unions and school boards to find a savings that amounts to about 2 percent across the state, though the individual numbers vary. By Dec. 15, supervisory unions will report back to Vilaseca on whether or not the schools will be able to meet the targets.
The targets for Orwell Village suggest a $26,922 spending cut, a 1.5 percent reduction from the current year’s budgeted expenditure of $1.7 million.
While the target is lower than for some schools, Addison Rutland Supervisory Union Superintendent Ron Ryan explained that the suggested reduction actually works out to a much larger cut. Cuts in the revenue sources that the Orwell school draws on for its budget will force spending down in 2011-2012 even further. In addition, he added, the school has very little reserved to draw on.
Ryan explained that the bottom line is that Orwell will need to cut spending more than 10 percent for the fiscal year 2012, which begins next July.
“It’s going to be very difficult to find $177,000,” said Ryan.
One of the main causes for the sharp revenue decline is cuts in funding for small schools by the state. As part of a recent move to encourage consolidating smaller schools in the state, the Department of Education has greatly reduced the amount of funding available through the Small Schools Grant.
That reduction makes up a large percentage of the ultimate spending cut — Ryan estimated that the school would have between $80,000 and $90,000 less from the state to work with in the upcoming year.
While Cousineau said the school board has not yet decided on how it will be tightening the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. He said that the board will have a preliminary budget worked out after a special budget meeting this week and a regularly scheduled school board meeting on Nov. 16.
To Cousineau, the question of whether the school board will be able to find those savings is very real. He said the board had already made some cuts earlier in October, when members took a first look at the budget.
“Some personnel cuts have already been made, due to changes in special education and Title I funding,” he said.
These cuts, however, make a small difference on a large number. He expressed his frustration at the tall orders passed down from the state, especially following several years of budget decreases of 2 to 5 percent.
“Schools that have been more fiscally responsible are being penalized the hardest,” said Cousineau.
Ryan said that the school board would be evaluating all educator and support staff positions carefully, and said that the school may increase class sizes.
“We’re certainly going to make every attempt (to meet the target),” said Cousineau. “The question is, can we meet the target without having an adverse affect on the kids’ education? I’m not sure we can.”
This will be the overarching focus of the budget discussions in the coming weeks. If the school board can’t cut enough spending come Dec. 15, Ryan said Orwell school board members would have to explain to Department of Education officials why they couldn’t. So far, it is unclear whether the state will take legislative measures for those schools that cannot make the reductions.
“Orwell’s number is very, very high. I don’t see how (they) can actually make that without making some drastic cuts,” said Ryan.
“What happens if they don’t meet the target — what is the commissioner going to do? That’s the $100,000 question.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.com.

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