VUHS spending driven by higher special education costs

VERGENNES — A major increase in special education costs led the Vergennes Union High School board on Monday to propose a 2013-2014 budget that, if approved by Addison Northwest Supervisory Union voters in March, would boost VUHS spending by 5.98 percent.
The board’s final proposal after a number of meetings is just $162 short of $9.5 million and calls for a spending increase of almost $535,670.
Adoption of the budget also allowed school officials to release final estimates of the impact of proposed 2013-2014 school spending on local property tax rates.
VUHS officials said $294,000 of new special education costs is leaving their hands essentially tied in proposing a new budget. Those new costs are largely in out-of-district tuition and transportation expenses, over which they have no control.
Those additional expenses alone would boost the current budget of roughly $8.96 million by 3.3 percent, officials said.
The rest of higher proposed VUHS spending is the direct result of contracted raises for VUHS teachers and other employees and for the costs of providing benefits, most notably health insurance.
ANwSU officials were told to expect an increase in health insurance costs — already higher than $1 million in the VUHS budget — of between 10 and 15 percent, and at the recommendation of Superintendent Tom O’Brien all ANwSU boards budgeted for a 13.5 percent hike.
School board chairwoman Kris Bristow said on Tuesday that there are no major additions or subtractions to programs or personnel proposed for VUHS next year.
Bristow noted VUHS made cuts while essentially level funding the school over the past three years — the board called for a 2 percent spending increase a year ago after calling for no increase two years in a row.
Given that history, Bristow said board members said they did not believe they should make program or personnel cuts because of the hike in special education costs.
“It’s a good budget,” Bristow said. “I don’t feel you can sacrifice other programs for special education.”
O’Brien backed the plan, saying it is fiscally responsible while continuing to meet the needs of VUHS students.    
“In the scheme of things, over a period of time, the budget growth, I think, has been very conservative across the board,” he said.
The VUHS board is also asking voters to consider a two-phase improvement bond in February. The first choice will be to spend $4.2 million to make improvements to the school’s auditorium, kitchen and cafeteria; fix roofing in two areas; pave the western parking lot; fix one sidewalk and add another; and improve traffic flow at the pick-up and drop-off area.
Voters will also be asked to spend another $2 million to put an artificial surface on the school’s varsity soccer and lacrosse field and to surround it with a six-lane track. That extra money cannot be approved unless ANwSU residents also back the larger bond for improvements in and around the school.
Payments on those bonds would not have an impact on the 2013-2014 budget, according to ANwSU business manager Kathy Cannon.
“If the bond passes, it would not affect the budget,” she said. “It would affect the following year.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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