VUHS board OKs 3 percent overall spending hike; voters to weigh in

VERGENNES — After listening to the second overflow crowd in the Vergennes Union High School library in six days, the VUHS board on Monday adopted a roughly $9.73 million spending proposal for the 2014-2015 school year that, including an extra $50,000 to start a capital improvement fund, would boost spending by about 3 percent.
Addison Northwest Supervisory Union officials said for several reasons the tax impact of the spending plan on the five ANwSU towns will be higher than the budget increase, however.
They cited a statewide property tax increase of at least 7 cents, the school’s declining enrollment, and a VUHS budget deficit from the past school year that officials pegged at $547,611 after state reimbursements for over-budget special education costs.
Combined with proposed spending in the three ANwSU elementary school budgets and assuming all four spending plans are approved, ANwSU residents could see residential school tax hikes that range from about 13.5 percent in Vergennes to 16 percent in Ferrisburgh.
According to official ANwSU estimates — adjusted for towns’ Common Levels of Appraisal (CLAs) also provided by ANwSU officials — district tax increases could range from between $180 per $100,000 of assessed value in Vergennes to $230 per $100,000 of assessed value in Ferrisburgh.
Most ANwSU homeowners would not see all of those increases. According to Vermont Department of Taxes data between 60 and 75 percent of ANwSU property taxpayers, varying by town, typically receive prebates.
The bulk of that property taxincrease is due to VUHS, officials said. Unexpected and expensive out-of-district special education tuitions contributed to most of the budget shortfall heading into this year, with unanticipated maintenance expenses making up the rest.
The VUHS board agreed on Monday to retire half the deficit during this school year, and said that adding that amount to next year’s education spending drives tax rates higher.
At the same time, the school’s enrollment is projected to drop from 526 to 500. Because the state funds schools on a per-pupil basis, that decrease means less revenue coming in — and an increase in the VUHS per-pupil spending costs, again pushing taxes higher.
Earlier this month, ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien called the problems facing the VUHS board in coming up with a budget for March voter consideration “a perfect storm.”
Most of the roughly 170 people packing the VUHS library Monday supported the school’s academic program. They opposed a series of cuts the board had considered that included before a Jan. 8 meeting math, science, language and physical education teachers. By Monday art and music positions, athletic teams and an athletic trainer also had been eyed; ultimately, no fulltime teachers were cut in the budget to be presented to voters.
Addison resident Laurie Childers said she had done the math on what would happen to her taxes if no cuts were made, and said she would bite the bullet.
“I will figure out how to pay $400 so you don’t have to cut programs,” Childers said.
Ferrisburgh resident Rick Ebel agreed.
“I want the opportunity as a taxpayer to vote for a budget that would carry the programs forward,” Ebel said.
Others, like Vergennes resident Jim Beauchemin, favored a middle road.
“I don’t envy the board, but I don’t envy the taxpayer, either. We can’t cut everybody, but there has to be some accountability somewhere,” Beauchemin said. “We’ve got to keep the core.”
Panton resident Cheryl McEwen reminded the board that residents of her town had already faced a big tax hike in 2013.
“To have another (major increase) this year is a little discouraging,” McEwen said. “The state has a problem with the funding system … The board has a duty to think of the taxpayers.”
Dozens of current students and recent graduates lobbied to preserve teaching positions. About a dozen came as a result of an effort coordinated by seniors Tommy Lee Hodsden, the student representative on the VUHS board, Ruby Dombek and Emilee Trudo.
Students took turns reading statements jointly written by students who had earlier broken out into smaller groups for that purpose. Those statements backed the programs the board had eyed for cuts.
“We are concerned that most of the cuts are coming from academics,” Hodsden said while introducing the student speakers.
Trudo concluded the presentation by stating students believed it was “our duty to fight” proposals that would “drastically reduce” the quality of education at VUHS and to ask the board to “seriously explore alternative cuts.”
Faculty members, including special educator Lee Shorey, also lobbied on behalf of their colleagues.
“You can’t put a price on relationships. That’s what we give you, and that’s what we need to keep in the school,” Shorey said.
Residents said they were also upset that the board had not done enough to make public the school’s complete financial picture, including the deficit, before last November’s $2.8 million bond vote.
“It was negligent not to disclose that,” said one.
Board member Neil Kamman said the board asked for the bond “because the school had critical needs” after years of deferred maintenance.
Another crowd member was not happy with Kamman’s answer, stating that personnel and programs were now at risk because of inadequate maintenance.
“We’re paying for your learning the hard way,” she said.
And VUHS middle school teacher Christopher Sheehan wanted to know why its was “a shock and surprise” that the deficit was so large.
ANwSU business manager Kathy Cannon said the audited numbers for the 2012-2013 school year were not available until this past September.
Ultimately, the board made seven cuts to bring down spending to what board member Jeffry Glassberg said met the board’s initial target of a 2.55 total spending hike, before factoring in the new capital fund.
Those were:
•  Eliminating a 40 percent middle school transition/literacy teaching position, saving $28,500.
•  Eliminating a grounds attendant, saving $28,000.
•  Postponing a math textbooks purchase, saving $12,200.
•  Reducing program materials, saving $125,000. This reduction started at $60,000, and the board approved a motion by Glassberg asking VUHS administrators to find an additional $65,000 of savings to reach the budget target.
“We should let the administration make some decisions,” said board chairman Kurt Haigis.
•  Eliminating a 20 percent tech support position, saving $10,000.
•  Reducing extracurricular activities, saving $33,000. Athletic director Peter Maneen said, “We’re going to have a loss of some activities” due to this cut.
•  Cutting back the request for a capital improvement fund from $100,000 to $50,000. Some residents said this fund should be postponed given the recent bond, but board members said they did not want to recreate the same maintenance problems that have plagued VUHS in recent years.
The budget also assumes retirement of half the $547,611 debt in the coming year, with the remainder to be retired the following year. Officials acknowledged special education costs are over budget again this year, but not to the same extent as last year.
Board members said they knew at some point they would have to make even tougher choices: The VUHS enrollment could drop to 470 in four years, per ANwSU numbers.
“We do have to be mindful of the future,” Kamman said.
Glassberg said staffing would be an issue.
“We have an imbalance between staff and students, and that has to be addressed. We’re going to have to right-size,” he said.
Budget supporters said they would work hard to back the decision before the March vote.
“We’ve got to spread the word,” said VUHS math teacher Sean Nary. “We’ve got a lot to do between now and then.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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