VUHS facing tough budget questions with revote due

VERGENNES — Members of the Vergennes Union High School board discussed for two and a half hours Monday evening how to draft a budget that would be palatable to voters, but they did not reach consensus on how, or if, to cut spending. The board also could not find common ground on how to retire the deficit from last year, and a looming deficit at the end of this year.
“I think this problem is way bigger than what we can do in this room tonight,” board member Laurie Childers said. “We have a very serious problem.”
On Town Meeting Day, residents in each of the five Addison Northwest Supervisory Union towns that send students to VUHS rejected the board’s original $9.73 million spending proposal for the 2014-2015 fiscal year by a total margin of 961-747.
That proposed budget would have increased VUHS spending by 2.4 percent. Voters also said no by a narrow margin to $50,000 to be used to start a capital fund that the board planned to devote to future VUHS maintenance needs.
When combined with proposed Addison Northwest Supervisory Union elementary school spending, the VUHS budget was projected to increase residential property taxes from between about 13.5 percent in Vergennes to 16 percent in Ferrisburgh.
At the meeting Monday, two dozen parents, community members and faculty offered suggestions on what the new budget proposal should look like.
As a frame of reference, district business manager Kathy Cannon said for every $100,000 the board lops off a new proposed spending plan, the property tax rate would decrease by about 1.7 cents.
Still, Co-principal Stephanie Taylor described a $300,000 cut as a “pretty dire scenario.”
“A $300,000 reduction is four and a half staff members,” Taylor said. “We could swallow that for a while, but that’s doing education the way we used to, not the way we want to work towards.”
Board member Neil Kamman said voters sent a clear message that the board should examine how to cut costs.
“We didn’t want to do this in a crisis environment, and here we are in a crisis environment,” Kamman said. “We need to make tough decisions, and we need to begin to consider staff size.”
Kamman added that he believed many voters were weary of supporting a new budget before they saw a completed audit of last year’s spending.
“I think we have a problem of credibility until we produce our audit,” Kamman said. “I believe if we had an audit and had a more forthright conversation about what were doing with the deficit, we might not have seen the magnitude of a ‘no’ vote.”
Cannon said that because of tax season, the earliest accountants could complete the VUHS audit was the end of April — weeks after the April 15 deadline by which administrators are required to provide teachers new contracts or send reduction in force letters.
Board chairman Kurt Haigis weighed in on the timing question.
“If the board feels an audit is important to a successful budget vote, we would have to wait until after April 21, probably even later,” Haigis said. “That’s not our goal.”
The board also discussed a bill in the Legislature that would limit the statewide property tax increase to 4 cents. Originally, it was slated to increase 7 cents.
Board member Jeff Glassberg suggested using the savings from the limited property tax increase to pay off the 2013 fiscal year budget deficit, which is projected to be almost $548,000 and which ANwSU officials attributed to unexpected special education costs.
If the board chooses to pay off only part of that deficit, as proposed in the original budget draft, Glassberg said the school’s financial woes would only worsen. The board is projecting a deficit of around $500,000 at the end of the current fiscal year on June 30.
“If we choose to split the fiscal year 2013 deficit over two years, we will end the current school year with a deficit exceeding $700,000,” Glassberg said. “It will make the budget exercise unbearable next year.”
Kamman calculated that using the savings from the limited tax rate increase to pay off the deficit would leave the board with a nearly identical budget proposal as the first draft.
“If we did absolutely nothing and sent the same budget, we could retire all of the deficit without making the tax rate any bigger or smaller,” Kamman said.
VUHS Co-principal Ed Webbley cautioned board members not to get lost in the numbers, and instead remember the students and faculty the budget will affect.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve heard talk about a child, or programs,” Webbley said. “I want to continue to put a human face on the debate. If those things get passed by for reducing the tax rate, I think we’re selling our kids short.”
Teacher Sarah Thompson suggested the board should increase its outreach efforts to articulate to voters why exactly taxes are increasing so much.
“Maybe we need to have a board and school open house, and explain this to taxpayers,” Thompson said. “Maybe we need time to explain how many teachers are needed.”
Haigis defended the board’s efforts at communicating the budget to the public.
“We’ve had open houses, many different meetings where we’ve invited the public,” Haigis said. “I think we have a financial disaster we have to handle.”
Teacher Mark Powers said the dollar figure that the board pitches to voters is less important than presenting to the public exactly where their tax dollars go.
“There’s been a storm, and it’s no one’s particular fault, but it’s a mess,” Powers said. “It’s made some sore wounds in the public, and I don’t know that dollars will fix that as much as the presentation that what we are doing is what we can do.”
Legally, the board must warn a new budget vote seven days in advance. However, several board members said they want to give voters several weeks to evaluate a new spending proposal.
“If you put something out too fast, people are going to think you’re trying to pull a fast one over them,” Superintendent Tom O’Brien said.
The board could not reach a consensus on how or if to make budget cuts, or handle the deficits for 2013 and the present year. Members did not make any motions or give an indication of what the next budget proposal will look like.
Instead, the board agreed to meet again next Monday, March 31, at 6 p.m. at the high school. Administrators will continue to hone the numbers and present options to the board for various scenarios.
Childers said she thinks the board should put off drastic cuts and instead ask voters to give them another year to come up with a solution.
“Let’s ask the voters to get rid of the debt at take advantage of the state homestead (tax) adjustment, and give us a year to figure this out,” Childers said. “Teachers want this, administrators want this, the board wants this. Just give us another year.”

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