OVUHS board considers trimming teaching positions

BRANDON — The Otter Valley Union High School Board’s biggest challenge is not coming from state officials this budget season, but from students. Or lack thereof.
A continuing decline in the student population has left the board with a much greater budgetary test than meeting state’s Challenges for Change target of cutting spending by 2 percent.
The cuts may result in the termination of the School Resource Officer (SRO) position currently held by Brandon Police Officer Anne Bandy, one science teacher and two English teachers.
Plus, projected spending will further be reduced by the retirement of one math teacher and replacement with a less expensive teacher, retirement of a part-time nurse with no replacement, and contracting out of food services.
If all of that is approved by the board this month and by voters on Town Meeting Day, spending at OV will decrease by 3.03 percent ($323,700), but the education tax rate will still go up four cents to $1.33.
That’s because enrollment continues to fall at OV.
The main reason for the enrollment decline is an aging population. Ironically, an increased cost of living due to high property taxes tied to the cost of education in this state has student enrollments dropping across Vermont as many young people leave for regions with lower taxes and better employment opportunities.
According to OV Co-Principal Jim Avery, the average class size at the school has been running at 15 students for the last few years. He added that that number also depends on the class. For instance, there are currently 26 students in the AP English class, and social studies is averaging 19 students per class.
As far as overall enrollment, in November 2009, there were 598 students attending OV, Avery said. In November 2010, that number dropped to 585.
“Declining enrollment has been the big driver behind why we’ve made so many cuts over the last three years,” OV Finance Committee Chair Ellen Kurrelmeyer explained during the board’s Nov. 17 meeting. “The tax rate is dependent upon per pupil spending.”
While many Vermont school districts struggle to meet the voluntary targets for cuts to their 2011-2012 fiscal year budgets set by the state Department of Education under Challenges for Change, the OV board had to go above and beyond just to reach a manageable tax rate increase.
“We knew we’d be blowing right by the Challenges for Change because of the tax rate,” Kurrelmeyer said.
The Legislature passed Challenges for Change during the last session in an effort to close a $150 million deficit in the state budget. The state directed OV to cut $119,00 from the 2011-12 spending plan and on its first pass, the board proposed cuts equaling $135,000, including the reduction of one English teacher, the retirement of one math teacher with a less expensive replacement, a part-time secretary, one department chair, a $20,000 cut in tuition payments to the alternative education Harvest Program, a $100,000 cut to maintenance repair expenses, and a salary freeze for Avery and Co-Principal Nancy Robinson.
But that plan, called Option 1, while shaving 1.27 percent off the OV budget, would raise the tax rate by seven cents to $1.36.
“We’ve increased the tax rate by 12-13 cents over the last three years at a time when people’s income is decreasing, they’ve lost jobs, or they’re in a pay freeze,” Kurrelmeyer said.
In 2008-09, the education tax rate went up to $1.23, and the current rate is $1.29.
“Further reduction actions are what we’ve been agonizing over in committee,” Kurrelmeyer said. “Philosophically, there’s no way we can cut the budget and make a level tax rate and still have a school standing.”
Option 2 calls for additionally cutting the SRO, a science teacher, a second English teacher, and the option of contracting out food service, which would save $32,680, but would likely spell the end of benefits to the school’s food service workers.
“These are some of the things that have us going home and not going to sleep,” Kurrelmeyer said.

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