Divided board OKs Mount Abe spending plan; Tuesday vote set

BRISTOL — A divided Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School board on Tuesday evening warned a new budget proposal to put before voters next week.
The vote in the five-town area will take place on Tuesday, April 14, the same day residents in Bristol and Monkton will weigh in on new spending plans for their elementary schools. Voters in all three school districts rejected fiscal year 2016 spending proposals on Town Meeting Day.
Addison Northeast Supervisory Union voters on Town Meeting Day rejected the Mount Abe budget proposal by a tally of 1,241 to 1,088.
On Tuesday, by a vote of seven to four, the Mount Abe board approved a spending total of $14,022,738. That figure is about $35,814 less than the budget voters rejected on Town Meeting Day and $68,566 less than the spending plan for the current fiscal year.
The difference between the rejected spending figure and the one warned for next week is due to a decrease in Mount Abraham’s contribution to the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union budget. After the ANeSU decreased the FY 2016 budget for the supervisory union last month, the assessed cost to each of its six schools decreased.
But while the new budget proposal is less expensive than both the first draft and the current year budget, it would increase spending per equalized pupil by more than $500. If voters approve the budget, administrators project per-pupil spending to be $15,219. ANeSU Chief Financial Officer Howard Mansfield said the average state spending per pupil is about $14,300.
The budget proposal would cut the equivalent of 5.5 full-time staff positions: 1.0 in English, 1.0 in science, 0.5 in foreign languages, 0.5 in the 504 learning center, an additional 0.5 in the learning center, 0.5 in physical education, 0.3 in drivers’ education, a 1.0 behavioral specialist and 0.2 for a special education position.
The original budget proposal would have cut 8.5 FTEs (full-time equivalents) for professional staff.
In addition, the new budget proposal would also cut 2.3 FTEs for support staff.
The tax rates in each of the five towns in the ANeSU are different based on the number of children they send to Mount Abe; but, based on tax projections for the original budget proposal, the Mount Abraham portion of the education tax rate in Bristol would be 81.44 cents per $100 of assessment on a home. The ANeSU did not provide tax projections based on the new spending figure by press time, but as the new proposal is just a quarter of a percent less than the first proposal, residents could expect a slightly lower tax rate than originally anticipated.
At Tuesday’s meeting, some board members worried that the new budget draft does not cut deep enough to win the support of a majority of voters.
Board member Carol Eldridge said she thought the draft was a good budget, but felt that the board did not do enough to respect the wishes of many voters who indicated that they wanted spending cut to lower taxes. Other than the SU assessment adjustment, the board did not cut spending from the original budget draft.
“I think we need to consider those people who answered the survey and wanted to cut the budget,” Eldridge said. “If they realized it really didn’t get cut, they’re going (to come) to the polls.”
Board member Bob Donnis concurred, and suggested that instead of looking at cutting more staff, the board could decrease spending on maintenance of the school.
Board member Bonita Bedard said that would be a bad idea, noting feedback the board received during its work on a renovation plan for the school, when many residents complained that the board had not spent enough to maintain the facility in recent years.
“I think one of the things made crystal clear to anyone who went to those meetings … was that people said repeatedly and vehemently, ‘Why have there not been funds in the budget to take care of the building?’” Bedard said.
Doug Dewitt said he felt the staff reductions in force in the proposal were too significant.
“I think the staff cuts are too fast and far too much for this year,” he said, suggesting that reductions in force be carried out over several years.
Sandy Lee agreed that the proposed staff cuts were worrisome, and said she preferred using the $36,000 in savings from the supervisory union assessment change to put toward staff, instead of cutting from the budget outright.
“I would propose the exact same budget, having addressed staff cuts shifting, and allowing more money for the administration to work with,” she said. “With $36,000 they can see what they can do to soften the hit of a staff reduction.”
During the visitors’ portion of the meeting, Mount Abraham junior Lane Fisher read a statement that warned the board that staff cuts would hurt students. She said she was unable to take AP classes she wanted because of the limited offering of drivers’ education, and said her classmates fretted about losing the opportunities to take foreign languages. Several other students stood in solidarity with Fisher as she said that she did not feel the board had made enough of an effort to seek the opinion of students on budget matters.
“Students face losing teachers we love the most,” she said. “If cuts are going to be made, consult us. We have not been included in the process.”
The new budget draft came at the end of several meetings since Town Meeting Day, during which the board solicited input from voters on how to draft a new budget. The board also sent out more than 5,000 postcards to voters asking for feedback, of which 340 were returned.
Kris Pearsall noted that 46 percent of respondents indicated that they felt education taxes are too high, while 36 percent were directly concerned about staff cuts.
Board chair Dawn Griswold summed up the challenge the board faced when attempting to create a spending plan that appeals to all voters.
“We are trying to meet the needs of students and to make everyone happy, but we might not be able to make everybody happy,” she said, noting that the board has no control over mandates from Montpelier and faces a declining enrollment across the district.
Ultimately, the majority of the board felt the new budget plan is a compromise between spending cuts and limiting staff reductions, and is the best hope for getting a spending plan approved by voters.
“For trying to take care of the kids, which is our first concern, this budget is a good one,” said Pearsall.
The Mount Abe school board will hold a budget information session on Monday, April 13, at 5 p.m. at the high school.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story listed the board vote as 6 to 3. It was, in fact, 7 to 4.

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