VUHS board presents multiple-choice ballot for new budget vote

VERGENNES — Addison Northwest Supervisory Union residents on Tuesday will vote on two Vergennes Union High School budget proposals in what will be the second decision this spring on spending plans for the 2015-2016 school year.
The first article on the May 5 ballot will ask residents to back a plan that cuts about $156,000 from the $10.47 million proposal that lost on Town Meeting Day, 831-718.
The second article asks voters to approve the board’s original $10.47 million spending plan.
That second article would only take effect if the first article is approved and the second article is also backed by a majority of voters.
That new plan up for consideration in article one, recommended in March to the VUHS board by ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning and VUHS Principal Stephanie Taylor, calls for spending about $10.31 million. Like the budget defeated by voters in March, it calls for four jobs to be cut — three teachers and one maintenance worker. But in the smaller budget proposal the school board did make a series of other, smaller cuts — see below.
The proposed teacher cuts in the $10.31 million proposal follow 2014 reductions equaling 3.9 fulltime teaching jobs, meaning actual or proposed cuts of about seven VUHS teaching jobs over two years.
Even the first article calling for a roughly $10.31 million budget would represent an increase of about 9.52 percent, or about $900,000, over current spending.
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 and transportation budgeting, and about $439,000 in higher anticipated spending on special education.
Another increase comes in the VUHS assessment from the ANwSU office, which Taylor pegged at a total of $800,000. That figure is about $231,000 higher than a year ago, but back then Taylor said ANwSU officials allowed VUHS to use an internal surplus of about $200,000 to lower the VUHS budget.
“It was artificially deflated last year because of the way the surplus was applied,” she said. “So it seems like a huge increase.”
Those three elements alone account for almost the entire VUHS increase.
School officials said the central problem is what they call years of inadequate budgeting practices by previous VUHS and ANwSU administrators.
Taylor said, for example, one salary was not accounted for in the current budget, nor were contracted raises, professional development tuition for teachers, or about $50,000 of transportation costs — and all that came on top of the multi-year special education shortfall. 
“These things cost a certain amount of money,” Taylor said, “And the numbers that appear on paper don’t seem to reflect the money that was spent in those areas.”
Taylor said the issue, at least in part, is not that the current budget increase is too large, but that budgets in previous years were unrealistically low, leading to the deficits now plaguing VUHS.
“(They were) not too small because a lack of generosity by the communities. The budgets that were presented to the voters did not accurately reflect necessary spending,” the principal said. “Yet the spending happened anyway.”
If the $10.31 million figure is approved without the second article, the latest ANwSU residential school 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 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 prebates under the state’s education tax laws. Taxpayers who qualify for prebates will eventually get some relief.
More than two-thirds of Addison County homeowners received tax adjustments, typically ranging from $1,200 to $2,100, in the most recent year for which data is available.
Those ANwSU 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 in voting Tuesday (see related story).
Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, chairman of the House education committee, said lawmakers are considering a plan that would not hike the statewide education tax rate, meaning ANwSU rates could be 2 cents lower.
But Sharpe cautioned that it is not a done deal.
“Things are certainly still in flux,” Sharpe said in a Monday email. “The latest from the House: $.98 homestead rate, 1.94 percent income rate, $1.52 non-residential rate. I doubt these rates will be the end rates since it represents quite a hefty rate increase for those households that pay according to income and no increase at all for all other classes of taxpayers.”
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, said on Tuesday the Senate was also looking at a 98-cent rate, but she also described the situation as fluid.
Officials said the VUHS deficit would be worse without measures such as a spending freeze, ongoing transportation and field trip cuts, and some deferred maintenance during the current school year. Taylor and Canning estimated at a March board meeting that spending in the budget for the current year was underestimated by about $300,000.
Taylor offered as examples that students’ chairs “have been repaired with duct tape,” and there is no money to fix middle school gym doors.
“We’re trying very hard to bring it in within budget this year, but I can’t do this indefinitely,” she said. “We’ve gone without in some significant areas for far too long.”
In March while making the $156,000 of cuts to reach the $10.31 million level, the VUHS board looked at, among other items recommended by Taylor and Canning, asking the school’s maintenance department to do lawn care and snow removal, repaying a food service deficit over a longer period, cutting Walden outdoor learning program materials and transportation, reducing extra-curricular costs, and cutting supplies, textbooks and fuel for drivers’ education, which has seen a drop in enrollment.
At that meeting, the board and administrators agreed that VUHS officials would have discretion on how to apply that money if voters backed the higher, $10.47 million spending level on May 5.
Both versions of the budget include cuts of 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 jobs. Taylor said in March that French is being phased out as an offering.
Officials continue to describe this budget as a course correction, and said future spending plans will not require the same sort of dramatic increases. Members of the VUHS board made a plea to voters in a letter to the editor published in this edition (See Page 4A).
In a note to the Independent this week, board chairwoman Laurie Childers noted the board has created a finance committee to better plan for the future and work with the board and central office, while ANwSU office has founded an audit committee.
“Our VUHS board, alongside our new superintendent, new business manager and a new principal, have worked tirelessly creating this budget that corrects past errors and invests wisely in our communities’ school and our children’s education. All VUHS board members, staff and administrators are committed to reasonable spending,” Childers said.
“This budget efficiently maintains crucial education programs, while ensuring that our students and families have the resources, teachers, and facilities they need. I assure our community we will all continue our commitment to reasonable spending with an eye on savings. The students deserve our support so we can move forward.” 
The VUHS board will hold an informational meeting on the budget revote on Thursday, April 30, at 5 p.m. in the school library.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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