UD-3 school board, administration begin budget work facing fiscal limits

MIDDLEBURY — UD-3 school district administrators will build a 2016-2017 budget for Middlebury Union high and middle schools under the assumption that they will be limited to a 0.71 percent increase in per-pupil spending, as prescribed by Act 46, the state’s new education consolidation law. Spending over that threshold would subject the district to a dollar penalty for each dollar they spend above their limit, according to the new law.
Act 46, passed during the 2015 legislative session, offers financial incentives to supervisory unions that agree to establish a single, consolidated K-12 school district that would be governed by a single board. The law also calls for per-pupil spending caps on school budgets during a two-year transition period leading to full implementation of Act 46. The state is granting per-pupil spending increases ranging from zero to 5 percent, based in large part on the districts’ recent spending trends.
UD-3 is currently spending $17,714 per student — the highest among all the high school districts in the state, according to the Vermont Agency of Education. Under Act 46’s transitional budgeting guidelines, UD-3 is to be accorded a per-pupil spending increase of up to 0.71 percent next year. That amounts to another $120.66 per student.
Addison Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Peter Burrows said it is likely that the per-pupil spending caps engrained in Act 46 will be challenged during the upcoming legislative session. But he stressed there is no guarantee that lawmakers will field, and pass, a change allowing for more generous spending limits.
“I think we need to go in with (a 0.71 percent increase) as a reality,” Burrows said. “It’s possible there will be a change (to the threshold), but we are going to be building these budgets — at least in fiscal year 2017 — under these cost-containment measures.”
The superintendent added the ACSU, and all other districts, are still waiting for more firm state aid numbers that might not be provided until mid-December.
UD-3 board member Devin McLaughlin of Middlebury said he believes any legislative changes to Act 46 would not be enacted until after local school budgets are finalized.
Making it extra tough on the ACSU is that student numbers have been on a gradual decline, and are expected to continue on that trajectory for at least a few more years until a leveling off is expected, according to district officials. Fewer students means less per-pupil block grant money from the state.
Board members on Oct. 6 considered the possibility of waiting until next month before giving UD-3 administrators direction on the budget, hoping new information comes from the Department of Education. But administrators said they wanted their marching orders as early as possible, given the financial challenges that await them.
“I’d rather have the month,” MUMS Principal Patrick Reen said, of maximizing the amount of time for budget planning.
Jerry Shedd, a UD-3 board member from Ripton, said a review of the district’s budget priorities is also in order.
“I think it’s important for us to do an analysis to figure out why we are the highest spending high school district in the state,” he said.
Not all the financial news is looking gloomy, however.
Cornwall’s Peter Conlon, chairman of the UD-3 board, said the district will have a budget surplus of several hundred thousand dollars to apply to the fiscal year 2017 spending plan. And the recent retirement of several veteran MUHS and MUMS teachers will help UD-3 lower its payroll, as the vacant positions will be filled with less experienced teachers commanding smaller salaries. It should also be noted that UD-3 has been very proactive in selling its early retirement incentive program to senior teachers. Eligible teachers will need to signal their interest in early retirement packages by Dec. 1, noted MUHS Principal Bill Lawson.
In the meantime, Conlon said, November will bring some “tough decisions.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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