VUHS seeks to close $1 million budget gap

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Union High School board is looking at a budget draft that if adopted as it stands could, according to Addison Northwest Supervisory Union officials, trigger a 20-percent hike in the VUHS portion of the property tax rates in the five ANwSU towns.
Around 100 students, residents and teachers attended a Wednesday VUHS board meeting at which board members wrestled with a preliminary budget draft that could boost school spending next year by about 5 percent to almost $10 million, not including a separate $100,000 Capital Improvements Fund.
The VUHS board will meet again on Monday, Jan. 13, at 6 p.m. to work on one of the most challenging budgets in recent memory. ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien called the combination of all the factors affecting VUHS spending and tax rates “a perfect storm.”
First and foremost, complicating the board’s task is a deficit of about $1 million. ANwSU officials said about $700,000 of that shortfall came from unexpected and costly out-of-district tuitions for special needs students during the current and past school years.
Some in the ANwSU community have wondered if there are accounting issues. But O’Brien and ANwSU business manager Kathy Cannon said the deficit has simply been driven by unexpected special education tuitions, plus other expenses related to the school’s long-standing deferred maintenance problems.
“The high school for (fiscal year 2013) has a deficit of about $1 million. Two-third of that is attributable to special ed tuitions, tuitioning students with complex needs to school outside of the district, unanticipated,” Cannon said. “It had nothing to do with mis-accounting for anything.”
The 2012-2013 VUHS spending plan listed special needs tuition as a $600,000 line item, while expenditures for that line item during that school year topped $1.3 million. This year, the VUHS board budgeted $802,500 for out-of-district tuition but Cannon expects the final costs to approach $1.2 million after four more special needs students arrived than expected and costs for others unexpectedly increased.
Cannon said the 2014-2015 tuition line item is $1.1 million. O’Brien said the board has an obligation to meet students’ needs.
“We can’t say, ‘We only budgeted $500,000, and you come in and you’re going to cost another $50,000, we’ve already spent it, we can’t help you,’” O’Brien said. “We can’t do that.”
O’Brien said about 10 students now require out-of-district, or even out-of-state, placements that cost between $50,000 and $250,000 a year, and the situation will not soon change.
“This year some of those kids remain in that pool, and there are additional on top of that,” O’Brien said. “And we anticipate that happening again.”
The potential dramatic tax impact does not just come from adding $471,000 to the budget, as the draft would do, and having an additional $100,000 capital fund line item on top of that.
There are two other major drivers:
•  The Legislature has stated its intent to add 7 cents to the statewide property tax rate, and that amount must be added to the ANwSU rate that supports VUHS and the three ANwSU elementary schools. 
•  The VUHS enrollment, 526 this year, is projected to drop to 500 next year. That means the school’s per-pupil spending will rise, and higher per-pupil spending in turn drives tax rates higher. At the same time, fewer students mean less revenue from the state education fund.
According to O’Brien and Cannon, the VUHS board’s choices to cut the budget include some or all of the following:
•  Cutting or bringing back to the building the school’s Walden Project, an off-campus alternative education program that now serves 15 students at a cost of $200,000.
•  Eliminating three teachers in math, physical education and language instruction.
•  Laying off a half-time librarian and a grounds attendant.
•  Cutting math textbooks and other supplies.
•  Lowering the proposed $100,000 capital improvement fund contribution.
•  Borrowing money over a three-year period to retire the deficit and limiting the one-year impact.
Some residents on Wednesday were there to lobby against higher spending, but most told the board they favored preserving teachers and programs, most notably offering a passionate defense of Walden. O’Brien said by the end of the evening the board was leaning toward retaining Walden.
But not all favored that move, both at the meeting and afterward. At the meeting, VUHS seniors Tommy Lee Hodsden and Ruby Dombek reportedly suggested the board think about all the school’s students, while some at VUHS wondered on Thursday whether it was prudent to spend $200,000 to serve 15 students while putting three other teachers at greater risk.
The ANwSU office also reported some calls questioning the potential Walden move, while Hodsden was on Friday organizing students to rally behind the school’s at-risk teachers and attend the board’s Monday evening meeting.
In a letter to the Independent on the Walden issue, Ferrisburgh resident Laura Sturtevant called it “a blessing that our high school had had such a creative and alternative program.”
But Sturtevant also noted, “the cost of running this program per student is very expensive,” and given the other option would be cuts … to positions that affect many other programs and over 500 students, it may be time to reassess the financial feasibility of the Walden Project.”
O’Brien said although the board moved to retain Walden, no formal decision was made. On Monday, he hopes the board can move forward, but he acknowledged there would be no easy choices.
“We’re back at the point where we try to identify other things for them to consider,” O’Brien said. “The problem is no matter what it is, there is going to be a representative group of people who are going to come in and say, ‘Don’t do that,’ as there was (Wednesday) night.”  
But if board members hope to pass a spending plan on Town Meeting Day, O’Brien believes tough decisions will have to be made.
“If they are looking at a chance for a successful vote on the budget, I think they have to,” O’Brien said. “The board, the staff, everybody involved, has to take a look at the total picture. There was a time it made sense to have X number of teachers and programs because we had a larger student body to serve. Those times are beginning to (pass).”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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