Leicester and Whiting face budgeting “Challenges”

LEICESTER/WHITING — School boards in Leicester and Whiting taking their first looks last week at proposed school budgets for the 2011-2012 school year felt the pinch from the Legislature’s “Challenges for Change” effort, as well as from a potential reduction in the state’s Small Schools grant.
Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union (RNeSU) Superintendent John Castle said that while many of the final numbers remain unclear, the Challenges for Change targets are set at a $12,177 reduction from Leicester Central School’s current spending plan and a $4,774 reduction from Whiting Elementary School’s current year’s spending.
In the Challenges for Change law passed last spring, the Legislature set targets for every school in Vermont to cut spending by about 2 percent, although individual schools have targets that vary widely depending on past years’ budgets. Schools have until Dec. 15 to tell the state if they will be able to meet that target. The Legislature has strongly urged schools to comply with the Challenges guideline, though it has not mandated the reductions.
For Leicester, these recommendations represent a reduction in net educational spending of 1.49 percent from the current year’s spending plan of $1,400,086. For Whiting, it is a 1.28 percent reduction from $508,318.
Castle said he expects both schools to meet the Challenges for Change targets.
“We’re not worried about meeting that expectation,” he said. “It’s more important that they (the school boards) deliberate and make a sound decision.”
Sound decisions — such as what programs or staff hours to reduce, and about what other line items can be winnowed down — will be especially important in the budget process because, Castle emphasized, the Challenges for Change numbers don’t tell the whole story.
They refer to a net spending reduction, which — depending on changes in revenue from the Small Schools grant and from state budget allocations to each school, as well as potential cost increases due to inflation — could pressure schools to reduce spending even more.
And some unknowns will not be resolved until long after the schools have given their answers for Challenges for Change. State allocations for the Small Schools grant will not be finalized until January, when the Legislature reconvenes. Department of Education Chief Financial Officer Bill Talbott said on Friday that until then, there will be little clarity about what funds will be available through the grant, especially considering the state’s current financial difficulties.
“I can only guess what would be the right number,” Talbott said.
Leicester Co-principal Carol Eckels said there was pressure to make reductions far deeper than the state targets suggested.
“We were looking at another $24,000 because of the anticipation that the Small Schools grant could be reduced by a third,” she said at last Wednesday’s board meeting.
Eckels said that the board had managed to cut spending by trimming the hours of some part-time staff and making assorted reductions in other areas.
But she said that there are some unknowns that the Leicester school just won’t be sure of until April — like how many pre-schoolers will be entering the school’s pre-kindergarten program next year.
“If we have a large pre-school class, it would affect our budget,” she said.
Either way, though, next year will be a difficult year.
“We’re going to have to do things differently — we’re going to have to do more with less,” she said. “We’re trying to bring in a budget that will do the best for kids, but also recognize that taxpayers are hurting.”
Castle said that he expects Leicester might need to make more reductions in order to keep the town tax rate as unchanged as possible. Schools receive state funding based on equalized pupils — a number that reflects not only the number of students a school currently has, but also the increase or decrease in enrollment over two years.
Though Whiting’s enrollment has been increasing, Castle said that Leicester’s enrollment is not as stable, and the school may see decreased funding as a result.
The variables remain, but Castle said the important thing is that boards ensure that spending reductions are carried out as carefully as possible.
“In many cases we’re going to have to make the decision to do less,” he said. “The challenge is making decisions that do not diminish the quality of education.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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