Board hopes VUHS budget to correct course

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Union High School board on Monday adopted a roughly $10.47 million spending plan that administrators said will begin to dig VUHS out of its deep financial hole and would more accurately reflect the cost of operating the school after years of underfunded spending.
To reach those goals, the budget calls for an 11 percent increase of about $1 million over the VUHS budget Addison Northwest Supervisory Union voters approved this past spring.
That increase comes despite proposed spending cuts: faculty reductions that equal a net of three full-time teaching jobs, a fulltime maintenance job, $84,000 in maintenance, $23,700 in extracurricular activities, and a number of smaller cuts in supplies and transportation.
The proposed staff cuts follow reductions equaling 3.9 full-time jobs a year ago.
The board on Monday also approved a separate article that if approved on Town Meeting Day would add $100,000 to the VUHS fund devoted to major building improvements and repairs.
According to ANwSU office estimates, budget approval would trigger a property tax increase of about 6 cents in the five ANwSU towns. The capital fund article would add another roughly 0.44 cents.
That tax rate increase would translate to about $64 per every $100,000 of assessed property value.
New ANwSU business manager Tonia Mears said the only unknown about those tax rate estimates is the statewide education tax rate. Mears’ estimate assumes that lawmakers will set that rate at 99 cents, as recommended by the Department of Education.
Officials said making enough further cuts to have an impact on taxes would be challenging: Lowering the tax rate increase by a penny, or $10 per $100,000 of assessed value, would require $225,000 in further cuts from the VUHS budget.
The budget adopted on Monday assumes that the $768,419 deficit that VUHS is carrying from this past school year will be paid off over the next three years. That means about $256,000 in the board’s plan would go toward retiring that deficit.
The largest problem in that deficit comes from inadequate budgeting for special education costs over several years, something ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning said she could not explain after her arrival last summer.
Special education “has been under-budgeted. I don’t know why,” she said.
A central issue on Monday was how quickly to work to retire the $768,419 deficit: Board members and administrators alike had agreed on the $10.47 million figure at a meeting the week before.
Canning and VUHS Principal Stephanie Taylor first proposed to the board a five-year plan that would have preserved more program elements, but the board requested that Canning and Taylor this week offer plans with two- and three-year scenarios. The three-year option means about $256,000 is devoted to the audited $768,419 deficit, while the two-year option would have meant using about $384,000 for deficit reduction.
Board members George Gardner and Jeffry Glassberg favored the two-year option that would have meant another $135,000 in program cuts, including saving $80,000 by eliminating one of the two Walden Project teachers that work with its 17 students and reducing the school’s Community Based Learning staff; Richard Rathbun said he was on the fence.
But ultimately all the board voted for the three-year option except Gardner, who abstained.
The school is also dealing with two other deficits in current spending. Among other shortfalls, the VUHS budget did not include funding for a teacher, an oversight ANwSU officials blame on departed employees; transportation costs for some programs; and adequate estimates for energy costs. Superintendent Tom O’Brien and business manager Kathleen Cannon left ANwSU this past summer.
Those shortfalls total at least $250,000, and make it difficult to compare current and proposed budgets, said Canning on Tuesday.
“I’m having a hard time doing that because this year’s budget is not accurate,” Canning said, adding the newly proposed budget is “making corrections for past practice.”
At Monday’s meeting, Gardner said he was concerned about new deficits, but Canning said new spending controls are in place.
“We are trying to get ahead of that potential deficit,” she said. “I am hoping it is not as dire as you think it is.”
There is also a $151,000 food-service deficit that officials said has been growing for 10 years. On Monday, board members and administrators said they were working to stop the problem and that the deficit would be reduced over as many as 10 years.
Glassberg and other board members pressed the issue of school maintenance. Glassberg wanted to make sure the maintenance budget would meet the board’s policy of setting aside 1 percent for capital costs.
“The reason we did that is we ran this facility into the ground and then we borrowed money to fix it,” he said.
Canning and Taylor assured him that the money was there, and Taylor said maintenance head Bob Worley assured them the remaining staff could keep up after the job cut, and she said the remaining cuts were mostly in delayed equipment purchases and would not threaten the building’s condition.
Resident Kristina MacKulin wondered if the cuts would mean students would have fewer opportunities, including the loss of AP courses.
Taylor and Canning said their proposal including the three-year deficit paydown would not hurt programming, specifically higher-level courses.
Student representative Emily Martin suggested school officials look again at the Walden program. She said using the nearby outdoor classroom would save $25,000 in transportation costs and the $8,000 in rent paid to landowner The Willowell Foundation.
Martin said Walden cost $200,000 before the cuts considered in the new budget.
“That is a large chunk of our budget that is serving a small number of our students,” Martin said.  
Later in the meeting, board member Richard Rathbun said he was not completely confident the initial budget plan would pass, and that it was possible Walden might have to be revisited at that point.
Board member Laurie Childers said the board and administrators were acting in good faith to retire deficits “created in part by former administrators who ran roughshod over this community.”
Childers said schools increasingly must deal not only with declining enrollment, but also with increasing numbers of “emotionally challenged” students whose needs costs money, and she pleaded for public backing.
“We are a lean education machine … We are solidly positioned to meet those challenges,” Childers said. “I would appreciate the community’s financial support.”
Martin said students believe in both the school’s leadership and in their neighbors.
“We have a lot of faith in not only the administration, but also the community as a whole,” Martin said. “We will get through the deficit and out to the other side.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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