ANwSU chips away at draft spending plans

VERGENNES — Residents of the five Addison Northwest Supervisory Union towns will almost certainly see school spending level off or drop during the 2011-2012 academic year.
But ANwSU officials said that after years of careful budgeting, reaching the full cost-cutting goal of Act 146, better known as the Challenge for Change, is not realistic in their district.
Act 146 seeks a statewide 2 percent drop in school spending from the 2010-2011 year even after schools statewide slashed $20 million to reach the current spending level. ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien said belt-tightening done for this year’s ANwSU budgets means a repeat could gut programs in the four schools he oversees.
“There’s a point … where the value and integrity of the program is going to be compromised,” O’Brien said. “And that’s a line I’m not interested in crossing.”
Spending at three of the four ANwSU schools dropped this year:
• The $8.9 million Vergennes Union High School’s budget decreased about $11,000 despite increases in salaries and health insurance. Administrators eliminated two full-time positions, part of the $186,000 in cuts to last year’s first budget draft.
• The $3.9 million Vergennes Union Elementary School budget was higher on paper, but included for the first time spending in the budgets of the now-defunct Vergennes, Panton and Waltham ID boards. Overall VUES spending fell $1,100. That budget followed increases of 1.7 and 2.4 percent in the prior two years.
• The Addison Central School board slashed $84,700, or about 6 percent, to reach roughly $1.8 million in spending this year.
Ferrisburgh Central School was the exception. FCS spending rose to $3.05 million by almost 6.7 percent, a figure driven by the first year of payments on last summer’s $1.5 million school upgrade project.
Those payments alone boosted FCS spending by 4.55 percent, and all other increases — essentially salary and benefit hikes — pushed spending up by 2.11 percent.
Given that fiscal landscape, O’Brien said he is recommending to the ANwSU boards that they try to cut what they can, but not necessarily the full 2 percent Challenge goal.
The problem, he said, is that costs — driven by modest increases in salaries and health insurance — are going to rise by roughly 2 percent regardless, making the real target about double the Act 146 goal.
“It’s not a 2 percent reduction, because it is not going to include the cost of business from one year to the next,” O’Brien said.
ANwSU officials, like other school leaders around the state, are also unclear on what happens if they fail to meet the challenge. According to the law, the education commissioner in January will report to legislators “the total projected amount by which FY (fiscal year) 2012 budgets will fail to meet the necessary reductions, together with a detailed proposal by which the Legislature can ensure that the targets will by met in FY 2012.”
VUES board chairwoman Cheryl Brinkman is among the school officials who said they are hesitant to let teachers go and compromise programs when the consequences are unclear.
“I am not personally in favor of reducing a full-time position to meet a goal if we don’t know what the repercussions are for not meeting that goal,” Brinkman said.
Brinkman also pointed to provisions in Act 146 for desirable “outcomes,” including increasing secondary school graduation rates and students’ interest in post-secondary education, and increased use of “early intervention strategies.”
“We’re not supposed to be compromising the quality of our programs to be doing this,” she said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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