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Mary Hogan spending plan reflects a 1.94 percent increase

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury voters on April 8 will vote on a proposed Mary Hogan Elementary School spending plan of $6,775,965 for the coming fiscal year. That figure represents a 1.94-percent increase over the current spending plan.
The budget would enable Mary Hogan Elementary to maintain its current staffing and programs and also boost the amount of assistance it receives from the Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC) to work with students who have behavioral problems, according to Principal Tom Buzzell.
The school currently pays CSAC to provide a few “behavior interventionists” to work with students whose comportment in class might be a deterrent to their, and other children’s, learning. The arrangement has proven so successful that the ID-4 school district wants to bring two more specialists to work within the school, according to Buzzell.
The specialists, Buzzell noted, have helped students with behavioral issues to focus on their studies and maximize their academic potential. As that potential is realized, the time with the specialist can be pared back.
“The goal is always … to remove much of that additional support as the student becomes more successful during the school day,” Buzzell said.
Looking at the overall spending plan, it’s clear that increases in personnel salaries (in line for a 3-percent increase) and health insurance premiums (slated for a 4.5-percent boost) are the main financial drivers, according to Buzzell. Mary Hogan Elementary currently counts around 40 faculty, along with another 30-35 paraprofessionals and a handful of administrative staff serving a student body of approximately 410.
It should also be noted that Mary Hogan Elementary is one of the few schools in the county seeing an increase in students during the past six years. During that timespan, the number of equalized pupils in ID-4 has grown from 376 to an estimated 415 next fall, according to statistics provided by Buzzell.
ID-4 school board members said they are pleased to see the growth and have been looking to offer a program that can challenge local kids while still being responsive to taxpayers’ ability to pay.
“The ID No. 4 Board and administrators have again worked hard to create a budget for our school that is both educationally and fiscally responsible,” said ID-4 board Chairwoman Ruth Hardy. “Overall, the budget proposes a 1.94-percent increase, which translates into a nearly equivalent homestead property tax rate increase. Our enrollment remains steady at 415 students, but this year over half of those students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, meaning that more of our students are living in poverty. Our budget reflects efforts to meet the diverse needs of students across the economic and educational spectrum. We look forward to presenting more detailed information to the Middlebury community at the ID-4 annual meeting on April 8, when voters will have an opportunity to ask questions and more fully understand the budget implications.”
It’s an annual meeting that figures to be particularly compelling this year. A group of residents has promised to file petitions seeking to change the date and manner of voting on future ID-4 budgets. The petitioners want the ID-4 annual meeting held within 10 days of Town Meeting Day and they want the Mary Hogan Elementary budget decided by Australian ballots.
The ID-4 school board discussed the two requests at their Feb. 9 gathering, after which they elected not to place them on the district’s upcoming April 8 annual meeting warning. Meanwhile, the petitioners have stated they have already gathered enough signatures to place the two referenda on the warning.
Some petitioners have argued that turnout for the annual ID-4 meeting has been notoriously low and that having an Australian ballot vote would allow more residents to weigh in on the spending plan.
Supporters of maintaining the status quo have argued that the current meeting process allows people to amend the budget and/or learn more about it before voting.
Buzzell will be among those keeping a close watch on how the public acts on April 8.
“Personally and professionally, I am interested in seeing the town make a decision on what it is they would like to do with how the school budget is voted,” Buzzell said. “We have long remarked about the ID-4 budget process that we don’t have a high degree of participation.”
Buzzell said he has, during the past 14 years, seen as few as five citizens (beyond the assembled school officials) vote on the ID-4 budget. That said, he is pleased that the vast majority of Middlebury residents who have shown up have given the Mary Hogan Elementary budget a thumbs-up.
“I feel blessed to be working at this school, where there is such broad-based support for education — and specifically for the ID-4 budget,” Buzzell said. “Though I think that support has happened over time, because I do think the town feels as though we have done what we have been directed to do by the board, in terms of delivering fiscally responsible budgets.”
Buzzell pointed to ID-4 budget statistics ranging from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2014. During that timeframe, he noted that:
•  District spending has increased from $15,291 per equalized pupil to the current $15,906. In contrast, the average spending per equalized pupil in Vermont has jumped from $14,780 to $16,710.
•  ID-4 ranks 195th out of the state’s 258 school districts in terms of total budget spending. Mary Hogan Elementary ranked 98th in that category in fiscal year 2009.
•  ID-4 ranked 20th out of 266 districts in the state in terms of spending per equalized pupil in fiscal year 2009. The district now ranks 89th out of 247.
He acknowledged that Mary Hogan has been helped by recent enrollment trends that stand in stark contrast to student declines in other districts.
“I understand I have been helped by having a community that people with students are moving into,” Buzzell said. “That puts us in an enviable position to make sure we can continue to spend the community’s money wisely.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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