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After debate on school spending, VUHS board looks to decide on Tuesday

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Union High School board on Monday took steps toward an April 14 budget revote and picked a new chairperson. But, despite debate among its members and the 20 attendees, board members did not settle on a new spending plan.
In a paper ballot of the board members, Addison representative to the VUHS board Laurie Childers unseated sitting chairman Kurt Haigis, one of two VUHS directors from Ferrisburgh, as the board’s new leader.
The board also voted to meet again this coming Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the VUHS library to settle on what to propose after its $10.47 million spending plan for 2015-2016 lost on Town Meeting Day, 831-718.
That plan called for an 11 percent spending increase of about $1 million over the VUHS budget Addison Northwest Supervisory Union voters approved in 2014.
That proposed increase came despite spending cuts: faculty reductions that equal three full-time teaching jobs, a full-time maintenance job, significant cuts in maintenance and extracurricular activities, and a number of smaller adjustments in supplies and transportation.
Those proposed staff cuts followed reductions equaling 3.9 full-time jobs a year ago, meaning the school has already or proposed to cut the equivalent of about seven teachers from its staff since March 2014. 
The major problem remains the $768,419 deficit that VUHS is carrying from this past school year. ANwSU officials say that deficit accrued over time due to past administrators’ faulty estimates for special education funding over several years and their failure to properly account for items that include the school’s contractual obligations to staff and transportation costs.
The defeated budget called for that deficit to be paid off over the next three years. That meant about $256,000 in the plan would have gone toward retiring that deficit; nothing the board discussed on Monday would change that approach.
The school is also paying off a $2.8 million bond to improve its auditorium, kitchen and cafeteria and to fix leaky roofing, among other smaller projects.
FURTHER CUTS?
On Monday, ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning presented the board with a memo suggesting four levels of cuts from the defeated budget in $60,000 increments up to $240,000.
None proposed further staff cuts except the $240,000 plan, which suggested eliminating a half-time position in the school’s Community-Based Learning program.
“The proposal is to stay away from further personnel changes,” Canning said.
The original budget plan would have created a 6-cent residential school tax increase overall before factors such as individual towns’ Common Levels of Appraisals (CLAs) and shares of the VUHS population were considered.
Savings from Canning’s four proposals ranged from shaving 1 cent off that tax increase at the $60,000 level to 5 cents off that increase at the $240,000 level, with the final amounts varying from town to town.
Three board members said they favored at most the $60,000 level of cuts, most of which would be achieved by slowing the pace of retiring another deficit — this one in the school’s food service.
Neil Kamman said he had “heard both sides” of the debate of whether to cut spending since the budget defeat, and would not favor doing so “unless we are told unequivocally by the majority of voters.” Childers and Chris Cousino then said they would support no cuts further than option 1 — $60,000.
But three board members, Richard Rathbun, George Gardner and Haigis, disagreed. They pointed to the $180,000 level, minus a $30,000 cut in operations and maintenance.
“It would be a slap in the face to come out with the same budget,” Gardner said. “And I think it needs to be more than $60,000.”
Haigis said if board members did not cut enough, “we’ll be doing this again in May,” while Rathbun said the vote offered enough evidence that a lower spending plan needed to be proposed.
“If we come back with the same numbers, people are going to say ‘You’re not doing what we asked,’” he said, later adding, “We need to cut more, plain and simple.”
PUBLIC COMMENT
Although more of the 20 community members and teachers in attendance supported higher spending than not, comments were also split.
Teacher Chris Wyckoff read a statement, one he said was signed by most VUHS teachers, that supported re-submitting the same proposal. It noted the many staff cuts already made and proposed and stated cutting “the budget even further would have an even more devastating impact” on the school and its ability to retain students with school choice on the horizon.
Wyckoff, among others, suggested that the first budget plan — particularly the level of cuts already made — was not well promoted to or understood by ANwSU residents. He said teachers would actively support a revote, including by staffing a phone bank and sending out letters.
“We firmly believe an educated public will pass the budget,” he said.
Ferrisburgh’s Lou McLaren also said the first VUHS budget, like the also-defeated Ferrisburgh Central School budget, was not well publicized, noting they were not even mentioned in school newsletters.
“The communication probably wasn’t as robust as it should have been,” McLaren said.
On the other hand, Addison’s Elizabeth Armstrong continued to criticize school spending.
“We need to cut this budget,” Armstrong said. “You’ve buried us in taxes year after year.”
Armstrong also said she had visited the school’s classrooms and was not impressed with the quality of VUHS education.
Student representative to the board Josh Sickles politely disagreed. He name-checked every teacher in the room and said each had contributed significantly to the school and his education.
“I’m in the classroom every day,” Sickles said.
Fellow student representative Emma Gardner supported Sickles.
“We are very proud of this school we attend,” Gardner said.
Ultimately the board did not agree on a way forward on Monday. On the suggestion of member Jeffry Glassberg, the only member who did not weigh in on a potential spending level, they voted instead to meet this coming Tuesday, March 17, beginning at 6 p.m. in the school library.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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