VUHS weighs a 2.5% spending hike

VERGENNES — Last March, the Vergennes Union High School board’s level-funded budget of a little less than $8.9 million earned solid support in the five communities the school serves. Now the board is eyeing a third budget draft for the 2012-2013 academic year that could raise spending by 2.47 percent to a little more than $9 million.
VUHS Co-principals Ed Webbley and Peter Reynolds made that recommendation to the board last week, when they also shared with the board the outline of what another level-funded budget could mean for reductions in force, referred to as RIFs.
“Basically … you RIF three teachers and a special education aide,” Webbley said. “And that would cut, without being too specific because that would not be fair to people who might be on the firing line, either one program or another. And it’s not the programs that are at the core of our mission. They’re programs who are designed to help kids succeed in the core.”
Webbley and Reynolds did not make specific recommendations at that Dec. 12 meeting from what Reynolds called “a doomsday list” of potential staff and program cuts. But they said in a Thursday interview they will share details from that list at the board’s Jan. 3 meeting.
The co-principals did offer some hints of what might be on the table if the board wants in March to present a budget with a spending increase of lower than 2.47 percent, an amount Webbley and Reynolds said they can live with.
“We’re advocating for this two-and-half percent,” Webbley said. “We’re not educationally in a position to make radical cuts to the program. We can’t cut the core program to begin with, and the question is which of the peripheral programs do you want us to cut? … And you start looking at the music and the good that does, and the phys ed and the good that does, and the art and the good that does, and you’re going to screw a kid either way.”
Or they could look to a middle school program that works with ninth-graders struggling to make the transition to high school, an effort that both principals said has been successful but is not technically part of the core curriculum.
“When you cut, you cut at Peter’s level (he’s the middle school principal)primarily, and you lose the support for the kids who are most challenged,” Webbley said.
Complicating the principals’ efforts to cut spending is that in the face of declining enrollment they have already reduced the teaching staff.
“We’ve cut four teaching positions in the past four years because of that,” Reynolds said.
Next year, the VUHS enrollment is projected to drop by 30 students to 585, and by 2013 it will fall to 525, according to Addison Northwest Supervisory Union office estimates based on elementary school populations. At that point, the high school student count will begin to grow again.
But while the loss of 30 students next year will affect tax rates, that change over six grade levels (7th through 12th) is not yet enough to justify more staff cuts, which at this point the principals said would in turn mean the loss of programs.
“I’m not sure educationally we would be ready to cut those programs,” Webbley said. “It hasn’t appeared to us to reach critical mass.”
The principals’ second budget draft called for a spending increase of close to 4 percent. Since then, they found more cuts, including a $47,000 savings by spending less for a needed computer upgrade to prevent a re-occurrence of last year’s week-long, school-wide computer crash.
 “We’ve taken out $115,000 by just cutting out computers, books, supplies, everything that we could, everything that we could imagine,” Webbley said.
What is left to push spending higher are the step salary increases agreed to in the most recent teacher-board negotiations, and the higher cost of health benefits, over which, of course, school officials have no control. Over the $9 million budget, more than $1 million goes toward health insurance for employees.
Webbley points out that department by department virtually all the increases are contracted raises in salaries, plus the rising cost of health benefits.
And he noted that talks for a new deal are beginning.
“The elephant in the room throughout this whole thing is the impending negotiation process,” Webbley said.
The principals said they expected the issue of teachers’ co-pay for insurance to be a hot topic, with the National Education Association strongly urging local unions to hold the line at 10 percent.
“That’s where the biggest debate can occur,” Reynolds said.
Both also noted that the board and Superintendent Tom O’Brien have done well in balancing the needs of students and ANwSU residents in adopting budgets and getting them passed.
“We respect that they listen to educational stuff,” Reynolds said. “We respect that they have to also sell a budget to the taxpayers.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent

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