VUHS spending proposal $211,000 less than in March; vote is Tuesday

VERGENNES — The third vote this year on a Vergennes Union High School spending plan will be held on Tuesday in each of the five Addison Northwest Supervisory Union towns.
The VUHS board has proposed a $10,258,933 budget for the 2015-2016 school year that is $211,000 lower than the plan defeated on Town Meeting Day and $55,000 less than the proposal that more narrowly lost on May 5.
The statewide residential school tax rate is a penny less than originally expected, and after two series of cuts the tax impact of the latest VUHS proposal is less than previous plans.
Including elementary school spending and capital fund articles that are already locked into place — and adjustments for Common Levels of Appraisals (CLAs) — residential tax rate hikes in the five ANwSU towns would range from about 1.6 to 4.65 percent if the VUHS plan was also supported (see chart).
Despite teacher cuts in this plan that bring faculty job losses to seven over the past two years, the VUHS board is still seeking an increase of about $845,000 over current spending.
Two major factors are driving that increase, ANwSU officials said:
• $256,000 that will go toward retiring a $768,419 special education deficit that they said has resulted from years of underestimating those expenses by former administrators.
• $439,000 in higher anticipated spending on special education. Officials said that figure represents a more realistic estimate of those costs.
School administrators have also worked hard this year to control costs after discovering that many expenses — transportation for many programs and even one position — were simply not accounted for in the current budget. Those expenses are properly dealt with in the proposed budget, they said.
Teaching and other jobs were locked in place in April per the district’s employee agreements, meaning any further cuts to the VUHS budget for the coming school year must come in what ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning called “non-contract areas.”
In adopting the current budget, the board cut $55,000, including $29,500 discovered from a double-budgeted copier lease. Some summer staff salaries and textbooks and supplies were also cut, and Principal Stephanie Taylor said VUHS could expect to save about $20,000 by hiring less experienced staff to fill expected vacancies.
Before adopting their current proposal, board members discussed a plan to cut about $45,000 more from the budget, a move that would have meant eliminating wrestling and boys’ lacrosse teams and slashing stipends for the school’s teacher-leaders.
If the budget fails on Tuesday, state law would allow VUHS to operate assuming a budget of 87 percent of current spending until voters approve a new plan.
Canning said that situation would be temporary, but the timetable and eventual budget would remain uncertain.
“Districts do wind up passing a budget. Eventually the community supports a budget and you move forward,” said Canning, adding, however, that officials cannot predict what further cuts they would have to make if this budget does not win approval.
Given the contract constraints, Canning said extra-curricular activities, including athletics, could again be threatened.
“We would have to have a discussion about postponing fall sports,” Canning said.
She said in the event of a defeat on Tuesday, officials could scramble to hold another vote before the July deadline to start operating at the 87 percent level. But for the time being school officials and board members are focusing their energies on explaining why they believe passing this spending plan is critical.
“I would rather spend my time trying to rally around the budget,” Canning said.
School tax increases in the five ANwSU towns would range from about $25 to $66 per $100,000 of assessed value if voters say yes on Tuesday. For instance, a home in Waltham would see an increase of $25 of taxes for every $100,000 of assessed value the first year
Those are lower than the estimates for the May 5 vote, which called for increases ranging from $50 in Waltham to $85 in Panton and Vergennes per $100,000 of assessed value.
Taxpayers eligible for prebates would pay these full increases in the first year, but would receive tax relief in the following year. About two-thirds of Addison County homeowners receive tax relief based on their income.
Within ANwSU, for example, annual property tax relief in 2011 ranged from an average of $1,065 in Vergennes to an average of $1,983 in Ferrisburgh.  
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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