Mount Abe tries to trim spending

BRISTOL — Administrators at Mount Abraham Union High School are grinding away this week at a 2012-2013 budget proposal, hoping to nip and tuck their way to a zero-percent spending increase.
This task comes after Gov. Peter Shumlin asked school districts statewide to level fund their budgets for the third straight year. But Lanny Smith, chair of the Mount Abe school board, isn’t sure that’s possible.
“We gave (school administrators) the direction to look as close as they could at zero-percent growth in the budget,” said Smith. “Administration has had no increases in salary for the past three years. We’ve cut and tightened everywhere we could … but I don’t know if we can actually maintain a zero-percent increase this year.”
At a meeting next Tuesday the board will consider a proposed spending plan that Smith said will likely call for the elimination of one full-time Mount Abe teacher.
“In our initial proposal we’re only going to have to cut one teacher,” said Smith. “This coming Tuesday” — at the board’s 6:30 p.m. meeting in the Mount Abe library —  “there will be a proposal in front of the board that will be very close to complete. The goal is to have a complete proposal by Dec. 22.”
As the school board works with school administrators to trim the budget, Smith said they must hurdle three main obstacles: flagging federal and state funds, a Shumlin proposal to lower per-pupil spending and infrastructure maintenance.
“Unfortunately, one of the battles that every school board faces is that we’re promised a lot of money from the state and the feds, but we don’t find out until March, April, sometimes as late as June what we’re going to get for the previous year,” he said. “It’s really hard to build a budget on that.”
The federal government, as Smith explained, has no problem breaking such promises.
“We have quote-on-quote promises … from the state and feds, but our biggest downfall last year was that the feds cut the money they promised us.”
Shumlin recently proposed a per-pupil spending rate below the level called for under statute. After a three-year freeze, the present rate this year of $8,544 is supposed adjust for inflation 4.1 percent next year to $8,891. But Shumlin has instead proposed raising that rate by only 2.1 percent.
All of this news makes the budget season that much more grueling for school administrators and board members like Smith.
“The difficulty … is that the governor wants a zero-percent increase in the budget statewide, and (state officials) are talking about lowering the cost of what they’re willing to fund for education,” said Smith. “So if our funding is down from the state … we’ve got to raise money somewhere. We’ve got to maintain things and keep the lights on.”
Some maintenance items, like a new compressor, will have to wait until next year because there’s simply no room in the budget, said Smith.
“We think we can get by for another year,” he said. “Next year we’ll have to do (some routine maintenance) because we don’t have a choice.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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