School board weighs MUMS teacher cuts

MIDDLEBURY — The UD-3 school board has warned school administrators during the past few years about an imminent day of reckoning when budgets will need to reflect fewer staff to serve a steadily declining student population.
Middlebury Union Middle School Principal Patrick Reen has prepared a 2014-2015 budget to reflect that day of reckoning, as MUMS is expected to serve 42 fewer students next year. So Reen has reluctantly proposed a $5,819,608 budget that reflects 3.2 fewer educator positions culminating in a plan that would spend 1.13 percent less than this year’s.
But some UD-3 board members on Tuesday confessed a willingness to postpone that day of reckoning, after hearing Reen and members of his teaching staff cite some of the consequences that a reduction in force might have on MUMS programming. Chief among those consequences: A move to reduce from four to three the number of interdisciplinary teams into which MUMS groups students and teachers to provide continuity in learning throughout the academic year.
“We’re not just talking about a reduction in (full-time, equivalent positions), we’re talking about upending an entire educational model,” said UD-3 board member Alison Stanger from Middlebury. “I’m deeply sympathetic about what I am hearing from teachers about how deeply disruptive that’s going to be.”
The UD-3 budget, to be voted on Town Meeting Day next March, will cover the combined expenses for MUMS and Middlebury Union High School. That combined budget, in its second draft, currently stands at $17,081,595, representing a 3 percent increase compared to this year.
The high school portion of the spending plan currently stands at $11,261,987, a 5.26-percent increase to serve a student body that’s expected to grow by more than 30 next year. But both MUHS and MUMS are anticipating some shrinking or perhaps flat enrollment numbers during at least the next seven years, barring an influx of families into the district, which encompasses the towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Salisbury, Shoreham, Middlebury, Ripton and Weybridge.
Reen on Tuesday presented the board with a chart projecting MUMS enrollment to fluctuate from the current 298 students to 256 in 2014-15; 273 in 2015-16; 250 in 2016-17; 249 in 2017-18; 256 in 2018-19; 237 in 2019-20; and 253 in 2020-2021. Reen noted the reduction from 298 students to a pattern of roughly 250 students in the near future represents a 15-percent drop that will affect class sizes. The current average class size at MUMS is around 18 students. Maintaining the current teaching staff with four interdisciplinary teams would result in average classes of around 16 next year; 17 the following year; and just over 15 during the 2016-17 academic year.
Recalling the UD-3 board’s past message to trim the budget as student numbers drop, Reen crafted a spending plan that calls for one fewer social studies teachers, one fewer science teachers, a 20-percent cut to a math teaching position and the elimination of a special educator. That special educator could be assimilated into the Addison Central Supervisory Union system, according to Reen.
“If we are going to make changes to reflect the change in enrollment, I think this is the change to make,” Reen told the board.
It’s a change that would require elimination of one of the Ohana, Mosaic, Paragon or Phoenix interdisciplinary teams. Currently, two of those teams now serve 7th graders and two serve 8th graders. Reen is proposing to downsize to three teams, serving a combination of 7th graders and 8th graders. This would result in average class sizes of 21.3 students next year, 22.75 the following year and 20.8 in 2016-17.
Eileen Sears, an English teacher at MUMS, read a statement summing up the faculty’s concerns about the proposed school budget.
“We fear the changes that have been proposed — moving from four grade-level teams to three mixed-grade teams — shift us more towards a junior high model and farther away from the middle school model,” the statement reads. “These two terms are not window dressing. There are profound differences between the two models that have far reaching educational implications for our students.”
Those implications, according to Sears, include the requirement under a three-team system that teachers instruct two grade levels.
“This will likely cost us valuable common planning times,” she said. “Sharing a group of students and common planning time is one of the cornerstones of the middle school model, and one that has proven successful for our students.”
She added the new three-team system would likely mean less individualized attention for students and tutorials for small groups.
“If you look at our track record of student performance, the numbers of students meeting or exceeding the standard are steadily increasing,” Sears said. “We attribute each of these significant gains to these intensive, small-group, middle-of-the-day tutorials and guided study hall times.”
Sears urged the UD-3 board to OK a budget that maintains the current four-team model of teaching at MUMS.
“The fact is, our system is not broken,” Sears said. “In truth, it is working really well. Why are we going to drastically change something that’s working for our kids?”
School board members asked Reen’s reaction to the teachers’ statement.
“I don’t disagree with anything (the teachers) said,” Reen said, noting he was speaking as an educator. But as a school administrator, Reen said he had to present a budget that pays heed to the UD-3 board’s stated concerns about linking spending to student numbers.
Reen’s and the MUMS faculty’s views clearly struck a chord with the UD-3 board, which did not take action on the proposed spending plan and scheduled to special meeting on Dec. 3 for further debate. The board will likely consider, among other things, whether to “ride out” another budget year with the same number of teachers, in hopes that some of the more senior educators will choose to retire. This would allow MUMS to eliminate some teaching positions through attrition or replace them with lower-salaried educators.
Restoring the science and social studies teaching positions to the budget would cost around $155,000. That would translate into a 2014-15 UD-3 budget increase of 4 percent, instead of the current 3 percent, according to Reen. Board members and school administrators acknowledged it would be tough to find $155,000 in cuts in areas of the budget other than personnel.
Board members are not likely to approve the UD-3 budget for a public vote before their meeting of Dec. 18, at which time they expect to hear details about state aid to education. Officials want to make sure the budget does not run afoul of provisions of Act 68 that impose a financial penalty on higher spending communities.
School directors also acknowledged their role of endorsing a budget to present to the voters while not telling administrators how to craft the spending plan.
“It would be improper for this board to give direction to the administration about how the school is structured,” board member Jerry Shedd of Ripton said.
Board member Mark Perrin of Middlebury said he believes the board will need to make some tough decisions this year rather than postponing them.
“I think when I look at our class size shift from this year to next year, it’s not significant, it still fits within our class size policy,” Perrin said. “We talk a lot about responding to a reduction in the population of our student size and I think we have to hold the line here and hold ourselves accountable for when we talk not only inside this room, but outside as well.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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