Vergennes Union High School board seeks to draft new budget

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Union High School board on Monday began the process of drafting a new budget for the school after voters in the five Addison Northwest Supervisory Union towns rejected the original spending plan on Town Meeting Day.
Comments by VUHS board members and ANwSU officials there and afterward showed some differences on how much and even whether to cut the budget, including the need for staff reductions.
The spending plan that went before voters on Town Meeting Day totaled $9.73 million, a 2.4 percent increase from the present fiscal year. It was defeated, 961-747. A majority of voters in each of the five ANwSU communities that send students to VUHS towns voted “no.”
Had that budget passed, school officials said, district taxes would have jumped in a range of 13.5 percent in Vergennes to 16 percent in Ferrisburgh. Voters in Ferrisburgh rejected the VUHS budget by the largest margin, 435-294, and also said “no” to their elementary school spending plan.
The VUHS enrollment is declining, pushing up its per-pupil spending, which in turn pressures tax rates, and the school also must retire an unanticipated budget deficit of half a million dollars that the district said is due to special education costs. Lawmakers are also expected to increase the statewide property tax rate by 7 cents.
The board on Monday set aside half an hour for an open discussion on the VUHS budget. A dozen residents and teachers attended the meeting.
Board chair Kurt Haigis said the board was open to any feedback on the failed budget, but wanted to keep options open for the new draft.
“We don’t want to march down a path we can’t come back from,” Haigis said.
Chris Sheehan, who teaches social studies at the middle school, said he believed that voters rejected the budget not because they did not want to fund the school, but because of the increasing state education property tax rate.
“Give the governor a chance to fix it, and we’ll keep the programs that we have,” Sheehan said. “Let’s not react to a message meant for someone else.”
Mark Powers, a teacher in the high school, said he hoped that the board would not abandon the progress it had made in its first proposed budget.
“It’s time for us to all sit at a table and talk about our budget,” Powers said. “Montpelier is creating an issue, but we have our own issues, and we can’t just scuttle everything we have and start over.”
Resident Kathy Kennett cautioned the board not to rush its next budget proposal, and said cuts, however difficult, need to be made.
“I think if you bring a hastily brought budget, it’s not going to pass,” Kennett said. “The newspaper said we have too many teachers. That needs to be put into the equation of the budget.”
Despite the decisive vote against the budget, Haigis said in an interview Wednesday that he does not think the board needs to present a slimmed-down version to voters next time around.
“I don’t think cutting the budget is the solution here,” he said. “If we cut the budget by 20 percent, you will still not reduce property taxes.”
ANwSU business manager Kathy Cannon did not agree with Haigis.
“That’s not true,” Cannon said. “For every $100,000 the school board reduces in the budget, it results in a 1.8 cent reduction in the tax rate.”
Asked to clarify his comments, Haigis stressed that both his numbers and Cannon’s are estimates, and that actual tax rates aren’t set until after a budget is passed.
“I’ve stated in public before that we can reduce the high school budget by as much as 20 percent and it wouldn’t effect an individual’s property tax,” Haigis said. “That’s been proven by multiple scenarios.” 
Haigis said he did not know if the school board would cut high school staff in the new budget, but did not rule out that possibility. He added the board has explored a plethora of ways to cut costs.
“Everything is in play,” Haigis said. “When you do a multi-scenario analysis, you try to set up a model with scenarios in effect.”
VUHS Co-principal Ed Webbley told the Independent last week that the school did not have enough students to employ all of its teachers and suggested staff cuts through attrition as a possibility. Webbley did not immediately respond to calls for comment.
Haigis said he believes the school board and administration are on the same page when it comes to drafting a new budget.
“There is no disconnect,” Haigis said, adding that he interfaces on an almost daily basis with the high school and district office.
Haigis said that a major reason residents voted against the VUHS budget was due to high property tax increases. He said that because voters approved budgets for two of the three elementary schools in the district, drafting a VUHS budget that is palatable to voters may not be difficult.
“It’s a dichotomy right now. Vergennes, Addison, Panton and Waltham all voted for their elementary school budgets, but not for the high school,” Haigis said. “The projections for their property taxes are almost as high as Ferrisburgh.”
Ferrisburgh voters rejected their elementary school budget, which called for an 11 percent spending increase, by a 450-279 vote.
Haigis said it is difficult to explain to voters how the Department of Education sets tax rates.
“Whenever I tell people about how our budgeting process works, they’re usually wide-eyed and slack-jawed,” Haigis said.
Board member Neil Kamman on Monday said one of the challenges the body faces is educating voters on the ins and outs of a budget proposal.
“Part of the difficulty is communicating financials in particularly complex years,” Kamman said.
Haigis said the school board has tried many ways to communicate with the public, including online blogs. The board also drafted a list of frequently asked questions about the budget to help voters get a better understanding of the complex process.
Haigis said that the board wants as much input from residents as possible, and has had mixed results to that end.
“Some people participate, while others don’t participate and just want to see the end result,” Haigis said. “If they don’t like it, they’ll vote against it.”
The board will meet again at 6 p.m. on Monday, March 24, at the high school, and Haigis said the sole topic of that meeting will be the new budget.
Haigis said the board is pressed for time to draft a new budget proposal.
“The concern I have is we went through a six-month process before, and now we essentially have 30 days to come up with a new budget.”
Haigis said the board is shooting to present a new budget to voters in April. State law mandates that school budget re-votes be warned seven days in advance.

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