Otter Valley meets budget goals

BRANDON — Against steep odds and with a few windfalls, the Otter Valley Union High School board this month passed a proposed 2011-2012 budget that far exceeds spending reductions suggested by state education officials in the Challenges for Change law and that raises the local education tax rate by a mere cent while retaining the school resource officer.
On Dec. 15, the board unanimously decided to put before voters a $10,221,037 spending plan for 2011-2012, cutting $454,853, or 4.26 percent, in spending from the current budget.
If the budget is approved by voters on Town Meeting Day, the education tax rate will go from $1.29 to $1.30 per $100 of property value. That means the owners of a home valued at $200,000 would see their taxes rise $20, assuming that that the homeowner is not eligible for school tax rebates.
The plan includes the reduction of one English teacher through retirement who will not be replaced, and science and math positions that will be reduced through retirement with replacements with lower salaries.
The one hot lunch cafeteria position that was up for possible reduction will be retained and the food service will not be contracted out, leaving current employee benefits intact.
The position of school resource officer, a $38,000 line item that was on the block to be cut, will remain, but has been cut to $35,000. Brandon Police Officer Anne Bandy is the SRO at Otter Valley, a law enforcement presence that assists school supervisors with discipline issues but also goes into the classrooms to talk about bullying, drug and alcohol abuse and other issues, and serves as a go-to person for kids who just need to talk.
“I’m glad that the board supported the position,” said Brandon Police Chief Chris Brickell. “It’s a positive step, especially for Anne, because I know how much she enjoys working at the school.”
The Dec. 1 meeting of the OV board saw a number of parents, teachers and students attended in support of the SRO position and Bandy’s work at the school. Brickell, who was also in attendance, said it was heartening to hear the community voice it’s support for the position.
“I was surprised at the level of support in the school,” the chief said. “Not that it exists, but that it was so well expressed at that meeting. It goes to show that, obviously, the work Anne does is important.”
Also by the end of that meeting, the board was looking at a possible four-cent hike in the local education tax rate based on the numbers at hand. But the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union’s central office budget was cut and that was the tipping point.
The RNeSU central office cut its budget by more than 2 percent, or $24,365, which included a second straight year of salary freezes for employees from the superintendent on down, a restructuring that will result in cutting seven paraeducators from the SU, and a reduction in the media clerk position. There will be a 2 percent increase in support staff salary, as well as a 2 percent increase in the amount support staff pays for their insurance co-pay.
Superintendent John Castle said that freezing salaries was obviously the right thing to do.
“One of the things that was very poignant was that we know how the Vermont economy is struggling and that a lot of people are unemployed or seeing wage freezes, and there’s no increase to Social Security payments,” he said. “And for those of us who are well-compensated, there was no reason for us not to go another year without a salary increase.”
In addition to the central office budget, the RNeSU spending plan includes separate budgets for the supervisory union’s transportation, special education, early education and educational support, intervention and prevention programs. Cuts were seen in transportation and early education to the tune of $31,561. Special education went up 2.47 percent to $5,912,988, due to a $185,000 increase in the Barstow school district’s assessment. There is a 55 to 60 percent federal reimbursement for special education spending through title funds and Medicaid, however.
In all, RNeSU cut 7.24 percent across all categories.
The OV board was charged with cutting $119,000 by the state’s Challenges for Change initiative, which sought to cut a total of $23 million in education spending this year in order to close a $150 million state budget deficit.
School boards across Vermont cut a total of $4 million from their budgets, coming up $19 million short of the Department of Education’s suggested goal. Ironically, $19 million is the exact amount of federal stimulus money given to the state of Vermont last spring intended to help school boards retain positions that may have been cut due to the recession. The state has been holding that money and debating how it will be spent.
“It think it’s unlikely we’ll see that $19 million for the schools,” Castle said wryly. “The reality is, as much as it pains me to say this, I think we’re going through a sea change in the funding of education.”
RNeSU was charged with cutting $166,000 to meet Challenges for Change, but was only able to cut $68,000 and still save money.
OV board chairman Jim Rademacher said the proposed cut in spending at OV was so much larger than other schools in part because a drop in student population meant the central office assessment — which covers special education, busing and other costs — also dropped a lot. He pointed out that a spike in enrollment at Neshobe Elementary School meant a big increase in expenses.
“It’s one of the fallacies of the Challenges for Change,” Rademacher said. “The proposed cuts are allocated to the supervisory unions, then to the schools … the smaller the allocation becomes the more likely it is that some little change could throw the whole thing out of whack.”
Castle credits the OV board leadership, particularly OV Co-principals Nancy Robinson and Jim Avery, for keeping the board fully engaged in the budget process and keeping it moving forward.
All of the supervisory union’s school boards, in fact, have been doing due diligence in the face of dwindling enrollment, which translates to less in state per-pupil funding, and the worst national economy since the Great Depression. And Castle said this marks a change in the way these boards must operate into the future.
“I see it as a long-term trend,” he said. “We’re going into a new era. We will learn to do with less, we’ll have to, and eventually find our bearings, but now it’s ‘How do we navigate our process?’”
Again, Castle credits the local school boards with keeping costs down.
“They are managing the difficult task of being stewards of our taxpayers money and of their children,” he said. “It’s going to be a number of years, not one or two, and part of this sea change is declining enrollment. It’s forcing us to make sure we’re vigilant with all of our programs. We owe it to the kids.”

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