ANwSU meets Challenge

VERGENNES — With the Addison Central School (ACS) board’s Thursday adoption of a $1.71 million budget for voter approval in March, it became official that 2011-2012 spending at all four Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Schools will drop.
The ACS spending plan calls for a 5.07 percent decrease. Earlier in the week, the Vergennes Union Elementary School board adopted a proposed $3.89 million budget that would lower spending by 0.10 percent.
The week before, the Ferrisburgh Central School (FCS) board decided to ask for voter backing of what would be essentially a level-funded budget of just under $3.05 million — but would still lower spending by $643.
Also the week before the Vergennes Union High School board came in with an $8.8 million plan that would drop spending from its current level by 1.06 percent. (VUHS details were reported in the Jan. 20 issue of the Independent.)
Collectively, Superintendent Tom O’Brien said he was surprised to report ANwSU did in fact achieve the spending reduction target called for in last winter’s “Challenges for Change” legislation. To do so, ANwSU had to cut about $350,000.
Led by a $200,000 cut in central office spending — largely made possible by the elimination of one of the two curriculum coordinator positions — ANwSU slashed about $390,000.
Thanks in part to lower assessments from the central office, VUHS cut $94,000; ACS, $91,000; and VUES, $3,800.
O’Brien said he called Vermont Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca and jokingly asked if ANwSU would win an award for being one of only 14 districts around the state to meet the Challenges goal.
O’Brien said he had not asked board members to specifically reach that goal if it meant hurting their schools.
“The Challenge asked us to make a good faith effort ‘to attempt to meet that target,’” he said. “We had … no expectation we would more than meet that target.”
More importantly, O’Brien said, he believes ANwSU boards balanced well their responsibilities to taxpayers and to students by preserving programs while proposing responsible spending. Although some teachers retired, notably at VUES, none were laid off at any of the four schools.
“Overall, we’re in good shape,” he said.
Some cost-shifting in VUES budget line items was inevitable a year after the Vergennes, Panton and Waltham ID boards were disbanded, but the school’s overall spending plan includes all the same items and is lower by about $3,800.
Last year, $328,000 was added by including those three boards in the VUES budget. Those boards mostly handled busing and Early Essential Education costs. This year, that spending is broken into increases in EEE (about $228,000) and transportation (about $103,000)
Despite the slightly higher teachers’ salaries called for in the new union-wide contract, VUES is seeing a drop in that department because of the retirement of two long-time teachers, Sherry “Kitty” Muzzy and Jane Nimblett.
VUES is also saving cash ($32,000) because of the lower ANwSU central office assessment.
Some guidance, nursing, and special education wage and benefit costs have spiked higher (a collective $28,500), and extra health benefit costs and repair needs bumped up “operations and maintenance” by almost $19,000. Other changes were minor.
Overall, lumping ID board and VUES spending together, if voters approve the VUES budget this year the collective total will drop two years in a row. This school year’s (2010-2011) VUES budget is about $1,109 less than the total of the four boards’ spending from the 2009-2010 academic year.
The level-funded FCS spending proposed for next year follows a 6.7 percent increase coming into this academic year.
O’Brien said the board was happy to be able to hold the line this time around after an increase last year that was largely driven by the first round of bond payments. He said the board made cuts last year as well as this winter.
“They made some pretty significant adjustments,” O’Brien said.
The only significant increase in the proposed FCS budget comes in teachers’ wages in benefits, about $53,000.
The largest offset in that spike upward comes in a $33,500 drop in special education costs as a tuitioned special needs student moves up to middle school and an experienced teacher plans to retire; a less-experienced teacher is budgeted as a replacement.
Savings were also realized because the new food service coordinator does not require health benefits ($14,000)_and the speech and language pathologist requested fewer hours ($5,000).
The drop in the ANwSU assessment ($18,000) also more than offset an increase in the school’s EEE costs ($8,000) that O’Brien said came from an increase in program enrollment.
O’Brien said he was most happy in Addison about a reduction in the school’s state-assessed penalty for excess per-pupil spending.
But cutting $91,000 from the budget, the ACS board reduced the excess amount — per the state — the school is spending per student to $292, from $622 this year.
Before adjusting Addison’s school tax rate for the town’s real estate values through the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA), the estimated rate is projected to drop by 3 cents, from about $1.59 to about $1.56.
The school’s steadily declining enrollment, not projected to stabilize or increase for about four years, has caused its per-pupil costs to rise in recent years. Thus, the town has exceeded the state penalty threshold and its taxpayers have had to pay a penalty.
O’Brien cautioned the problem will arise again next year “without a change,” but said the ACS board was happy to be able to cut so much this year without affecting the school’s core programs.
Much of the $91,000 came from salaries and benefits, but no teachers were laid off. Rather, a technology coordinator position was filled with a part-time aide, instead of by a teacher; a half-time teacher retired; and a part-time aide will not be replaced.
The other major savings came from the lower ANwSU assessment (about $20,000), lower EEE costs (almost $9,000), and a drop in maintenance and operations (roughly $19,000) that included lower energy costs and a cheaper contract to maintain the heating and ventilation system.
A future article in the Independent will take a more complete look at the impact of proposed ANwSU spending on the tax rates in its five towns.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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