UD-3 board eyes 3.1% budget cap

MIDDLEBURY — The UD-3 school board is considering cuts to driver’s education, dance, art and foreign languages in order to limit the increase in the 2012-2013 spending plan to around 3 percent.
The UD-3 budget includes expenses for Middlebury Union middle and high schools. School directors earlier this month reviewed a 2012-2013 budget draft of $16,247,714, reflecting a 4.1-percent increase in spending just to cover contracted teacher salary raises and  benefits, projected hikes in fuel and electricity costs and a rise in special education transportation expenses.
Board members agreed on Tuesday that they could not ask Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) taxpayers to absorb a 4.1-percent budget hike next year. They asked UD-3 administrators to go back and look for some additional savings. MUHS Principal Bill Lawson outlined a list of $120,808 in net reductions affecting five different subject areas.
Those reductions, which would collectively lower the proposed UD-3 spending plan increase to 3.35 percent, would include:
•  Reduction of one section (class) of foreign language instruction.
•  Elimination of one special education paraprofessional. Lawson said the paraprofessional is assigned to a student who will be moving on.
•  Reduction of three sections of fine arts — specifically dance. This would eliminate dance as a class offering, but MUHS would continue to offer dance as a sport.
•  Two sections of drivers’ education. This would eliminate a part-time employee who currently provides behind-the-wheel training, affecting course availability for around 20 students. Lawson said the program would still retain a full-time instructor.
•  One section of art.
Lawson said all of the affected teachers have been notified about the potential cuts. He added he is particularly concerned about the proposed foreign language cut. An ad hoc ACSU committee recently issued a report supporting the notion of expanding foreign language instruction throughout the district, including at the seven elementary schools.
“There is much more potential upside in growth in foreign language,” Lawson said.
Meanwhile, the proposed MUMS draft spending plan comes in at under a 3-percent increase, even when budgeting the first year’s payback on a potential $1.2 million roof replacement project at the school, according to Principal Inga Duktig.
Board members agreed that while they don’t want to reduce class offerings for students, they need to make an extra effort to reduce the rate of spending increase during these tough economic times. The board last year cut UD-3 spending by 2.03 percent.
Ideally, the board does not want to see a budget exceed a 3.1-percent spending hike. That’s because an increase higher than that, according to Superintendent Gail Conley, would trigger two votes under state law. That law stipulates a “two-vote” mandate for budgets that exceed 1 percent above New England’s inflation index. So the district would be required to have one vote on the increase of up to 3.1 percent, and another vote on the portion that exceeds 3.1 percent.
But Conley noted the UD-3 budget does have some leeway when it comes to the two-vote law. That’s because the law allows districts to exempt expenses associated with alternative education for at-risk students from counting toward the two-vote threshold. Approximately $247,000 was budgeted for such services in UD-3.
Still, UD-3 board members said they want to show taxpayers the schools are intent on making sacrifices.
“I would like to keep the budget increase as low as possible,” said board member Mark Perrin of Middlebury, though he said it would be tough for him to support the foreign language cut.
“We should get as close to 3.1 percent as we can,” said board member Quinn Mecham of East Middlebury. “I think somewhere around 3.1 percent to 3.3 percent is where I would be comfortable.”
Board member Peter Conlon of Cornwall said it would behoove school directors to get used to the idea of cuts, as declining enrollment in the ACSU will make reductions even more necessary in the near future.
“We can make (these cuts) now or we can make them a year from now, but we are going to be making them,” Conlon said.
Bjarki Sears, president of the Middlebury Educators’ Association and an MUHS teacher, urged the board to minimize the impact of cuts on school programs and personnel.
“What I would ask you to do as a member of the union, as a teacher and as a taxpayer, when you look at a line that is above 3.1 percent, ask yourselves, ‘Is this increase worth more, or worth enough, to warrant a decrease in programming?’” Sears said.
The UD-3 board will try to finalize a 2012-2013 budget at its Jan. 10 meeting.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent

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