VUHS board eyes budget that would lower the tax impact
VERGENNES — The Vergennes Union High School board on Monday agreed to submit a to-be-announced lower dollar amount for a third budget vote and to pick June 9 as the vote date.
The board will wait until a May 28 meeting to make final a new spending plan for the June 9 vote, one that will be held on the same day as a third Mount Abraham Union High School budget vote.
Board members on Monday said they hope to adopt a VUHS budget that will lower the projected tax impacts in Addison Northwest Supervisory towns by several cents.
There are three ways board members hope to do that:
• They are optimistic that the Legislature will not increase the current 98-cent statewide education tax rate by 2 cents, as lawmakers are proposing in their latest school finance reform bills.
• On Monday, they tentatively agreed to take longer to pay off the school’s $768,419 deficit, a move they said would lessen the tax impact of the 2015-2016 VUHS spending plan. The current administration inherited that deficit, created by years of under-budgeted special education costs, from previous administrators. A plan recommended by Vergennes residents and city officials Lynn Donnelly and Mel Hawley to pay off the deficit over five years instead of two could cut 2 cents from tax rates.
• A $55,000 spending cut from the most recently defeated $10.31 million VUHS budget, which officials said would save a penny on the tax rate. Most board members said they would favor a cut of that amount, but some said they might favor cutting more if the statewide tax rate rises.
ANwSU officials had estimated that if the $10.31 million figure were approved without a higher second article that was also on the ballot, district homeowners could have expected school tax increases of 5 cents in Waltham, 7 cents in Addison and Ferrisburgh, and 8.5 cents in Panton and Vergennes.
Those estimates account for all school spending in the five ANwSU towns, officials said, not just the VUHS budget.
But ANwSU business manager Tonia Mears said on Tuesday morning it could not be assumed that the earlier estimates could simply be lowered by 5 cents, although reduced estimates could be expected.
“I haven’t done the breakdown for each town,” Mears said.
The school board and ANwSU administrators know they cannot predict which way lawmakers will move, even if the governor has also now come out in favor of the 98-cent rate.
“The Legislature has not made a decision as to what the tax rate will be,” Mears said.
That great unknown led the board to wait until May 28 to adopt a budget and to request three levels of potential cuts from VUHS Principal Stephanie Taylor and ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning: $27,000, $55,000 and $110,000.
Board member Jeffry Glassberg suggested the later meeting, noting by then the board could look at budget cuts and longer deficit reduction terms as well as know the status of the statewide rate.
“We would have three menu items to work with,” Glassberg said.
Canning urged them not to slash more deeply than $55,000.
“We are prepared to go to a maximum of a $55,000 cut,” Canning said. “$55,000 was difficult to come to.”
Taylor said teachers have already signed contracts, and thus more teacher cuts are not legally possible. Nor are they desirable, she said, after the equivalent of seven teaching jobs have been reduced between proposed and current budgets; counting aides, a total of 11 staff cuts have been made.
Cuts past $55,000 would mean the loss of some extra-curricular activities, Taylor said, including teams.
Hawley pointed to the vote total: On May 5 the $10.31 million spending proposal that cut $156,000 from the budget defeated on Town Meeting Day lost, 722-676, or by 46 votes.
“I think it’s important you not overreact to that 46 votes,” Hawley said.
Board members and those who spoke among the 15 residents who attended Monday’s meeting also blamed, at least in part, the May 5 defeat on the second article on the ballot. It would have added $156,000 to the $10.31 million to equal the $10.47 million budget defeated on Town Meeting Day.
That article, one that could have only taken effect if the first article had passed, failed by 843-556, or 60-40 percent.
Board member Neil Kamman was one of several who said the article confused some voters, while other residents who opposed higher spending voted against the first article to ensure the failure of the second article.
“I’m pretty sure the split vote was a mistake,” Kamman said.
That May 5 revote was made necessary when on March 3 ANwSU voters rejected the board’s first $10.47 million spending plan, 831-718.
Even the $10.31 million plan would increase VUHS spending by $900,000. But school officials say their hands are tied, at least in part, due to inadequate budgeting practices by previous administrations.
For example, increases include about $256,000 toward retiring the $768,419 deficit, plus about $439,000 in higher anticipated spending on special education; officials said that figure represents a more realistic estimate of those costs.
On Monday, all also agreed that this time a better get-out-the-vote effort would be necessary, especially given that the May 28 meeting will not allow time for a mailer before the vote. Several present suggested involving elementary school parent organizations and social media to a greater extent, and one suggested shoe leather.
“I would go out door-to-door,” said Vergennes resident Barbara Fitzpatrick.
Other ideas were even simpler. Panton’s Kathy Kennett responded to a suggestion that the budget not be reduced.
“I would hope the board would listen to the voters,” said Kennett, who recommended cuts. “If you put it out there, it’s going to make them mad. You’ve got to show you heard the message.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]
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