Mount Abe school board launches campaign to pass a budget

BRISTOL — Mount Abraham Union High School directors are launching a public information campaign in hopes of winning voter support for a newly revised, 2015-2016 budget that reflects a 1.02 percent decrease compared to the current spending plan.
Addison Northeast Supervisory Union voters will field the proposed budget of $13,947,738 on Tuesday, June 9. It represents the school board’s third attempt to devise a spending plan that can pass muster with residents of the five-town area, which includes Bristol, Monkton, Starksboro, Lincoln and New Haven.
Local voters defeated an initial MAUHS budget proposal of $14,068,551 by a 1,241-1,088 tally on Town Meeting Day. That budget represented a $32,753 reduction in spending compared to the fiscal year 2014-2015 spending plan, which runs through June 30 of this year.
Mount Abe directors cut $36,000 from that failed initial budget before delivering it to voters in April. But residents rejected that revised $14.02 million spending plan by a 755 to 485 margin.
Board members again pored over the budget and last week agreed to warn a $13,947,738 spending plan that is $75,000 less than the version that failed in April. Dawn Griswold, MAUHS board chairwoman, said the latest budget draft reflects some new savings in personnel salaries, plant operations, and some anticipated economies in electricity and propane. She also noted the district expects to finish some school construction work this year that had been budgeted for fiscal year 2016. And ANeSU administrators are projecting some savings in the tuition budget line; some of the district’s children have special educational needs that must be addressed outside of local public schools.
Overall, the proposal that voters will field on June 9 reflects a reduction of 8.5 full-time-equivalent positions, including 5.3 FTE teaching positions in such categories as English, math, science, physical education, foreign language, learning center and driver’s education.
The personnel cuts, according to Griswold, reflect the realities of a MAUHS student enrollment that has been on the decline — a trend present in most parts of the state.
Mount Abraham on Oct. 1, 2013, counted 752 students in grades 7-12. There are currently 696 students, and officials are not forecasting a substantial rebound in the near future.
“Mount Abe’s (enrollment) has been dropping consistently,” Griswold said.
MAUHS directors have asked for public feedback in the wake of the budget defeats, and they have received some at their meetings and through a recent postcard survey. That survey attracted 336 respondents, 227 of whom said they voted against the budget. One hundred fifty-four respondents said they voted “no” because they felt their taxes were already too high; 120 said they based their “no” vote in part on concerns over staff cuts reflected in the spending plan.
Griswold acknowledged residents’ concerns about taxes, but added she hoped people would also register their financial frustrations with legislators who have the power to change the way in which education funds are raised.
“We heard from people on fixed incomes who said, ‘I have nothing left to give you,’” Griswold said. “They said, ‘I usually support the schools, but I can’t give any more.’”
Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, said he is well aware of the education tax concerns of his constituents in the Addison-4 district. Sharpe tried to tackle those concerns — mirrored statewide — as chairman of the House Education Committee. During this past legislative session, the committee successfully advanced legislation that will, among other things, allow a supervisory union to dissolve its SU board (and budget) and become part of a larger school district, a move that supporters said will lead to administrative efficiencies and savings down the road.
Sharpe reiterated his contention that voters are concerned about their Addison Northeast Supervisory Union budget, which currently stands at $7,042,595, according to information on the ANeSU website. Sharpe said five-town voters currently do not have an opportunity to vote on that sum, which funds such expenses as ANeSU administration, special education, student support, math and literacy services.
“If the ANeSU board wanted to see the school budgets pass, they needed to cut the supervisory union budget” by a substantial amount, Sharpe said. “They have not yet cut it enough to impress local voters.”
Networking with ANeSU taxpayers after the two Mount Abe budget defeats has also revealed a major misconception that the board is trying to correct, Griswold noted.
“We discovered that some people confused the operating budget (request) with the school bond project,” Griswold said.
It was last November that the MAUHS board pitched a $33 million school improvement bond that failed by a 3,328 to 1,239 tally. Griswold stressed the operating budget request has nothing to do with the failed school bond, which remains on indefinite hold.
“We need to make it clear that it’s not the bond vote; it’s for the operation of the school,” Griswold said.
Some voters have also voiced concern about ANeSU administrative leadership. District officials in March received a citizens’ petition calling for the removal of Superintendent David P. Adams, which came in tandem with a near-unanimous vote of no confidence in his leadership by the teachers’ union.
But school board members said they hope voters judge the Mount Abe operating budget on its own merits.
“Although in recent months a portion of the community has expressed concerns regarding the superintendent, the current vote on the Mount Abraham budget is an entirely separate matter,” Griswold said. “The goal of the Mount Abraham board is to provide an operating budget to the local community that funds the  educational needs of our students to ensure their success. We believe that the budget being presented will do just that and encourage our community to come vote to support our children’s success.”
And the operating budget will get trickier if not put to bed in the very near future, they said.
Without a new budget by the end of the fiscal year, June 30, the school will have to borrow money to stay open. By law, the district can borrow up to 87 percent of its current budget to cover expenses into the new fiscal year.
“Mount Abe is a big school,” Griswold said. “To be running at that much less, I can’t even imagine how you would go through that.”
An approved budget on June 9 would mean the district could get a waiver from borrowing for nine days into the new fiscal year, according to Griswold. There is a state-mandated, 30-day waiting period to account for the potential of someone petitioning reconsideration of the budget if it is indeed OK’d on June 9.
But if the budget fails on June 9, all bets are off.
“We really need a budget to start moving forward, planning programs and things for students,” Griswold said. “The things that could happen if we don’t have a budget are not going to be good for anyone — students, boards, community members. It’s not a road we want to travel on.”
The Mount Abe board will soon be sending a budget information flier to five-town voters. That information can currently be seen on mtabevt.org. The board will soon follow up with additional information regarding the property tax implications of the proposed Mt. Abe budget.
Bristol Town Clerk Jen Myers said absentee ballots are currently available for both the Mt. Abe budget revote and the Bristol Elementary School budget revote, slated for Tuesday, June 16.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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