Two-tiered VUHS revote set

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Union High School board at a special meeting on Tuesday decided to put a two-tiered budget proposal before voters on May 5.
The first article on the ballot will ask Addison Northwest Supervisory Union residents to back a spending plan that includes about $156,000 of cuts from the $10.47 million proposal that lost on Town Meeting Day, 831-718.
That $10,313,933 plan, recommended by ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning and VUHS Principal Stephanie Taylor, did not make further staff reductions past the cuts equal to three fulltime teaching jobs and one fulltime maintenance position called for in the March budget proposal.
Those proposed teacher cuts followed reductions equaling 3.9 fulltime teaching jobs a year ago, meaning reductions equal to seven VUHS teachers over two years.
Their budget instead, among other adjustments, asks the school’s maintenance department to do lawn care and snow removal; repays a food service deficit over a longer period; cuts Walden program materials and transportation; slashes extra-curricular costs, in part by delaying the promotion of girls’ lacrosse to a varsity sport; and cuts supplies, textbooks and fuel for drivers’ education, which has seen a drop in enrollment.
The second article the board approved on Tuesday could only take effect if the first article is approved and it is then also backed by a majority of voters.
It would restore that $156,000 to the VUHS budget and allow school officials to spend it for what Taylor called, in a clarifying remark to the board, “the best interest of the students.”
The board only chose the two-article route after it deadlocked, 2-2, on a budget that would have made only $60,000 of cuts, with Chairwoman Laurie Childers declining to break the tie; rejected a motion to approve the $10,313,933 spending plan without the second article, and voted against another motion to put forward a $10.35 million proposal.
Instead, board members — operating at a special meeting called just a week ago and without Waltham’s Jeffry Glassberg and Ferrisburgh’s Kurt Haigis, who said in advance they had unbreakable conflicts — went with a compromise first suggested by George Gardner and later moved by Neil Kamman.
If the lower figure is adopted without the second article, the latest ANwSU residential tax estimates call for increases of 5 cents in Waltham, 7 cents in Addison and Ferrisburgh, and 8.5 cents in Panton and Vergennes.
Those estimates include the projected 2-cent statewide tax rate increase that lawmakers are now eyeing in Montpelier, and include elementary spending. Ferrisburgh’s estimate assumes the recently adopted Ferrisburgh Central School budget is approved.
Those increases translate to between $50 and $85 of new taxes per $100,000 of assessed value, at least for homeowners who are not eligible for property tax relief under the state’s education tax laws. More than two-thirds of Addison County homeowners received tax adjustments, typically ranging from $1,200 to $2,100.
ANwSU and VUHS officials had hoped to hold the VUHS revote on April 14. But they learned this week that when the Ferrisburgh board on March 12 also adopted a separate $5,200 article asking to restore the school’s Spanish Enrichment program, the April date was not possible (see story on Page 1A).
Although most of the 30 people attending the meeting in the VUHS library urged the board to make as few cuts as possible and said that they would work hard on behalf of a larger budget, Gardner said the residents who said no on Town Meeting Day had to be respected.
“We are doing those people a disservice if we don’t offer those people a lower option,” Gardner said, adding that the second article would “give the people the option” of getting the vote out for their preference to maintain higher spending.
The VUHS board and ANwSU officials are struggling with a deficit from several sources in trying to create a budget and maintain services.
But the roughly $10.314 million budget would still increase spending by 9.52 percent.
A memo from Canning to the board noted that removing special education increases ($439,201) and a higher assessment from the ANwSU office ($231,480) meant an apple-to-apple increase of just 2.4 percent.
Those increases include about $256,000 toward retiring the $768,419 deficit that VUHS is carrying from this past school year, a shortfall largely due to several years of inadequate special education budgeting.
Officials said previous administrators had simply not budgeted for many other items, including staff benefits and most notably transportation, a line item now mostly reflected in the ANwSU office increase.
Taylor and Canning estimated the current budget was underestimated by about $300,000, an amount that the school has been able to save with belt-tightening during the year and by lower-than-projected energy costs.
The ANwSU office has also had to spend extra to dig out of an accounting mess uncovered this past spring by the Agency of Education, a mess that at the time threatened badly needed funding for ANwSU programs.
“We have been dealing with bad figures from things that happened in the past,” Gardner said.
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.
Officials continue to describe this budget as a course correction, and said future spending plans will not require the same sort of dramatic increases.
“I promise this will be better next year,” Childers said.
Many in the crowd said they were worried about what the cuts in teachers would mean: They include a full-time math teacher, a 60-percent science job, a 50-percent English position, and 33-percent reductions in art, music, French and drivers’ education positions. In response to a question, Taylor said French is being phased out as an offering.
Panton resident Theresa Smith — she is losing her math position but said she does not expect to regain it and was speaking as a parent and taxpayer — said she foresaw classes being cut, especially low-enrollment AP offerings, and the school could struggle to switch to Proficiency Based Graduation Requirements with fewer teachers.
Smith said what officials describe as a financial “hiccup” does not look that way to residents, and she was one of several to suggest paying off the debt over a longer term to free up money for educational programming.
“It seems like we’re not getting what we’re paying for,” Smith said. “This is not a hiccup for my family. It is a life-altering experience.”
Some, like Vergennes resident Jason Farrell, pointed to the state’s new school choice laws as creating competition for students, as well as the larger issue of good schools as key to attracting families to the area.
“You’re balancing my children’s future with the errors of the previous administration,” Farrell said. “I’m invested really in the future of this community, and I want to be part of it.”
Ferrisburgh Central School board member Chris Kayhart at one point asked Kamman what sort of responses he was getting in his email inbox. Kamman responded it was split, but slightly tilted toward those who favored controlling the tax rate.
After the budget vote, Kamman said the two-tiered article might determine whether those in the crowd who said a concerted effort could pass the original budget were right.
“This is actually a good way to gauge where the electorate is at,” he said.
CORRECTION: The Independent’s March 12 article on last week’s VUHS board meeting incorrectly identified a VUHS student representative on the board who spoke at the meeting. Her name is Emily Martin. The reporter apologizes for the error. 
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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