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UD-3 eyes teacher retirements to help balance its budget

MIDDLEBURY — The potential retirement next year of more than 10 veteran teachers and a projected drop in the need for special education services are among the reasons why officials of the UD-3 school district believe they might be able to hold the 2015-2016 spending increase to below 2 percent.
School directors on Nov. 5 got their first look at a very preliminary draft fiscal year 2016 budget for UD-3, which reflects expenses for Middlebury Union middle and high schools. That budget draft — which Addison Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Peter Burrows stressed could change appreciably depending on future state aid information and board decisions — calls for spending $17,354,120, driving a 1.7 percent ($289,341) increase.
“Right now, we are in the nascent stages of budget development,” Burrows said. “But we are moving into this budget with a conservative frame of mind.
“We want to make sure we are doing what we need to do to fund student need and be fiscally responsible,” he added.
Even though it’s early in the process, UD-3 officials could use some good news after what was a very tricky and at-times emotionally charged budgeting process last year. The board initially flirted with the prospect of eliminating 3.2 educator positions at MUMS, which would have resulted in elimination of one of four interdisciplinary teams at the school. The board was preparing for a forecasted drop of 42 students at MUMS.
But updated state aid numbers and some other budget adjustments ultimately allowed the board to OK a 2014-2015 UD-3 budget of $17,064,779, representing a 2.89 percent increase. It’s a spending plan that preserved staffing levels and the four interdisciplinary teams at MUMS. At the time, some board members wondered if the budget reprieve was just going to be temporary.
Turns out the financial picture is looking better for UD-3.
The first bit of good news came in the form of a draft 2015-16 ACSU central office budget that is 5.68 percent less than this year’s. The ACSU central office budget includes special education, administration, technology and professional development services that are assessed to the district-member towns of Middlebury, Weybridge, Salisbury, Shoreham, Ripton, Shoreham and Cornwall.
The actual central office assessments to towns are projected to decrease by a combined total of $6,283,918, or 5.2 percent.
Burrows pointed to a decline in special education costs and changes in the Early Education Program as major reasons for the drop.
“Having a centralized budget that is a decrease will be helpful,” Burrows said.
He is also upbeat about the UD-3 spending plan, which school directors will look to finalize by the end of the year. Student enrollment numbers for UD-3 are looking flat at this point, according to Burrows.
“I don’t believe were are looking at any significant RIFing,” Burrows said of the prospect of teacher layoffs, also known as reductions in force, or RIFs.
Instead, the district will be aggressively shopping its early retirement incentive program to veteran teachers, in hopes of reducing salary obligations and gaining the flexibility to cut positions by attrition as opposed to through layoffs. And eligible teachers will be informed that the early retirement incentive program will not be automatically offered each year, so it might be in their best interest to take advantage of the offer while it is still on the table.
“We have been offering early retirement almost automatically for about a decade,” UD-3 board Chairman Peter Conlon of Cornwall said. “We have asked the superintendent to notify (the teachers) that this is something we are looking at right now, but teachers should not go into each year expecting this will be offered.”
Conlon promised the retirement program will be debated more vigorously at the outset of the budgeting process in future years.
And, of course, offering the retirement program remains a gamble, school district officials noted. The program becomes more advantageous to the district the more teachers buy into it. It can be a financial loser for the district if only a few teachers use it.
“It’s always the luck of the draw,” Burrows said. “But I think we will see a significant number of retirements.”
Meanwhile, special education costs are projected to decrease by $64,022 and $103,314, respectively, at the middle school and high school.
Also providing some good budget news, according to Conlon:
•  Health insurance premiums that are expected to rise by around 4 percent, which is lower than usual.
•  Heating fuel prices that have been in steady decline.
•  A reduction in interest payments on construction debt associated with the building of MUMS and renovations to MUHS almost two decades ago.
“Overall, we’re getting a lot of good news, budget-wise,” Conlon said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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