ANwSU towns to cast ballots on lower VUHS budget

VERGENNES — Residents of the five towns in the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union will head to the polls on Tuesday to vote for the second time on a budget for Vergennes Union High School.
In the first vote, on Town Meeting Day, voters rejected a 2014-2015 spending proposal of $9.73 million by a tally of 961-747. A majority of voters in each of ANwSU’s towns voted “no.”
After several sometimes-contentious meetings during which the VUHS school board heard from faculty, community members and parents, the board proposed a new budget of $9.42 million, some $317,000 less than the original proposal. That figure is also about $82,500 less than the current budget of roughly $9.5 million.
At an April 14 school board meeting, VUHS Co-principal Stephanie Taylor outlined what these cuts would likely look like, with job positions accounted for in increments of full-time equivalent staff, or FTEs. They include: 1.0 FTE in social studies, 1.0 in physical education, 0.4 in high school science, 0.4 in Spanish language, and 0.2 in French language. In addition, the cuts would include a 0.5 reduction in the library media specialist and a 1.4 reduction, covering two part-time positions, in the middle school literacy interventionists.
Under these cuts, VUHS would also shed three paraeducators. Taylor said this would offset spending at VUHS as well as other schools, since special education is administered at the district level.
At that meeting, Taylor estimated those staff reductions to save the school between $313,000 and $316,000.
Those cuts would have reduced the hours of  French teacher Matt DeBlois. A week after Taylor outlined the proposed staff reductions, DeBlois was hired to be the principal at the Addison Central School. ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien said the departure of DeBlois from VUHS would not affect the administration’s proposed cuts.
“The total dollar and staff reductions remain the same,” O’Brien wrote in an email. “The hiring of Matt DeBlois has not changed our projections.”
District officials estimated the school tax rate increase under the new budget proposal to be 14.34 percent over last year’s budget, down from an 18.53 percent increase in the spending proposal shot down on Town Meeting Day.
The proposed budget would also pay off all of the debt remaining from the 2013 fiscal year, which totals around $273,000. School officials anticipate an additional $500,000 deficit for the current fiscal year, due to much higher than expected special education costs.
A copy of the entire proposed budget is available on the VUHS website. VUHS board member Neil Kamman also composed a “Budget Fact Sheet” to provide voters with answers to questions on the budget they may have.
In the five-page document, Kamman said that the proposed cuts were unfortunate, but necessary.
“Neither the board, teachers nor administration want to execute these reductions in force,” Kamman wrote. “However, the combined effects of a reduction in student enrollment and increases in the statewide property tax force our hand.”
The report includes graphs that explain how every dollar is spent, and how enrollment projections illustrate a challenging future for VUHS. The school had more than 650 students in 2008. Next year, it will have fewer than 500 — a loss of about 21 students per year.
With fewer students, the cost per pupil is higher. In turn, this places an additional burden on taxpayers.
“The graph shows that in the four years leading to the proposed fiscal year 2015 budget, VUHS will have lost 84 students, which corresponds to very real increases in spending per pupil and the tax rate,” Kamman wrote in the report.
It is impossible to project exact property tax rates for the coming fiscal year, because the Legislature has not yet set a statewide residential property tax rate.
The ANwSU estimates assume the 4-cent increase in the statewide residential property tax rate approved by the Vermont House of Representatives more than a month ago. However, the Vermont Senate last week threw a curveball, passing a bill pegging the residential tax rate hike at 6 cents.
The Legislature is tentatively set to adjourn on Saturday, by which time the House and Senate could reach agreement. However, it is not unusual for that deadline to be missed.
Cannon said ANwSU had not adjusted its estimate given the uncertainties of the situation.
“We can only work with the information we have,” she told the Independent.
Many ANwSU homeowners are eligible for property tax prebates, and as such they would not feel the full brunt of any tax increase.
Voters will head to the polls May 13, the same day residents of Ferrisburgh will cast ballots for a new proposed budget of Ferrisburgh Central School. The FCS budget was the only other ANwSU spending plan to be rejected by voters on Town Meeting Day.
In concluding the VUHS Budget Fact Sheet, Kamman, on behalf of the board, urged voters to support the new spending plan.
“Your support of the proposed fiscal year 2015 budget on May 13, 2014, is critical,” Kamman wrote.
He cautioned that if a budget is again rejected by voters, any additional cuts would have a lasting impact on the school programs, while only slightly decreasing the tax rate.
“Our kids will suffer these consequences most acutely, but so will our community,” Kamman wrote.
VUHS Co-principal Ed Webbley penned a letter to the editor, published in this issue of the Independent, in which he listed a litany of facts, rankings and statistics that portray the accomplishments of VUHS student and faculty.
He lauded the creation of the call back program and Performance-Based Graduation Requirements, and noted that the school was ranked by U.S. News and World Report magazine as the 9th best in the state.
“Over the part nine years, the staff of Vergennes Union High School has worked tirelessly at transforming us into a 21st-century school,” Webbley wrote. “Please support our school. It is a bargain.”

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