VUHS sees 2% hike; first in four years

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Union High School board on Monday settled on an $8.97 million budget proposal to put before Addison Northwest Supervisory Union voters in March. The plan would increase spending at VUHS by a little less than 2 percent — essentially back to the school’s 2007-2008 level.
Monday’s action followed a Jan. 3 meeting at which the VUHS board asked administrators to cut back their recommendation of a 2.47-percent hike to less than 2 percent.
ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien said that request was met by reevaluating the services required by special education students and cutting two aides for the next school year.
The savings in salaries and benefits came to about $42,000, enough to meet the board’s target, O’Brien said.
Overall, O’Brien said the board has proposed another responsible budget.
“The board has over the past two and three years made focused efforts to at least maintain programs, while realizing the burdens on its taxpayers,” he said.
The budget would increase spending by about $175,000 if approved and marks the first proposed increase at VUHS in at least four years.
Last March, the Vergennes Union High School board’s budget of a little less than $8.8 million earned solid support in the five communities the school serves; it decreased spending by 1.06 percent.
The previous year’s budget of about $8.9 million included a spending decrease of about $11,000.
The board’s proposed 2012-2013 budget is about $60,000 higher than the 2007-2008 VUHS budget, an overall increase in spending of about 0.7 percent over the past four budget cycles.
VUHS Co-principal Ed Webbley said he believes the school is doing good work despite at times “frustrating” financial constraints.
“Obviously we’re doing a lot with a little,” Webbley said. “Obviously we owe it to the taxpayers to operate frugally, but we also owe it to our students to educate them in the highest manner possible …  Any reasonable person would wonder how much longer we can sustain the outstanding service we provide.” 
O’Brien said he had recommended another level-funded budget for VUHS, but understood why that goal was not reached after years of capped or lowered spending.
“As we went through the process, the board, administrators and staff worked on being as realistic as they possibly could,” O’Brien said. “We looked at our programs and made decisions that were in the interest of kids, but also kept in mind our taxpayers.”
Although the school’s enrollment is expected to drop next fall by about 30 students to 585, VUHS board chairwoman Kris Bristow said it was not yet possible to make further corresponding cuts to the teaching staff.
VUHS has cut four teaching jobs in the past four years, and Bristow said the number of middle school teaching teams has been reduced from three to two. The board thus chose not to make choices from what co-principals Webbley and Peter Reynolds had called a “doomsday list” of potential staff and program cuts that would have been necessary to put forth another level-funded budget.
“We have decreased staff,” Bristow said. “The hard thing in the high school is when you look at (this level of) decreased enrollment it doesn’t mean a number of teachers can be decreased, it means programs.”
Instead, she said the VUHS middle school’s Expeditionary Learning program is being phased out, and teachers are making do with older textbooks and minimal supplies.
“I think (the budget) is meeting the essential needs,” Bristow said. “I think there are sacrifices that have been made in order to get there.”
 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 school officials have no control. Over the almost $9 million spending plan, more than $1 million goes toward health insurance for employees.
Talks for a new teachers’ contract are beginning, and the principals said they expected the issue of co-pay for insurance to be a challenging topic.
Despite the increase in spending and the decrease in enrollment, O’Brien said the district’s financial projections do not call for VUHS spending to boost ANwSU towns’ tax rates.
He said modest increases in the base amount set by the state for per-student costs and in statewide funding should mean a level VUHS contribution to local tax rates.
But towns’ common levels of appraisal rates (CLAs) and proportionate number of students at VUHS could mean changes to individual town rates, he said.
Bristow added that ANwSU was also planning to save $4,300 in printing and mailing costs by not mailing full budget reports to every home in the five towns it serves — Vergennes, Addison, Panton, Waltham and Ferrisburgh. Instead of printing 3,800 reports, ANwSU will print 700, which will be available at town offices and meetings and at the ANwSU office on Green Street in Vergennes.
The full reports will also be available in digital form online at anwsu.org and at vuhs.org.
Postcards will be sent to all ANwSU homes telling residents how to find the reports online and offering those who want hard copies the chance to receive them in the mail. Those who would like copies mailed may call the ANwSU office at 877-3332.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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