VUHS board gets a look at challenging budget

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Union High School board on Monday looked at a $10.3 million budget proposal for next year that, despite a proposed spending increase of only $37,000, could increase the VUHS tax rate by about 20 percent.
That is, it could see the rate increase unless the Legislature acts to remove or delay the Act 46 spending penalty.
This coming Monday, the board will look again at a budget that could call for cuts. The meeting will be at 6 p.m. at VUHS.
On this past Monday board members talked about the benefits of school governance unification as a selling point for a budget plan; by consensus did not consider seriously a proposal that would make $1.2 million of cuts, including all sports programs; and agreed to look at scheduling a vote later than Town Meeting Day.
By delaying the public vote on the budget, school board members said, they would know for sure two things:
•  If lawmakers had changed Act 46, which currently calls for a dollar-for-dollar penalty for school spending over a certain per-pupil threshold that VUHS is projected to far exceed because of declining enrollment. That provision is one of two main drivers behind the projected higher VUHS tax rate.
•  If Addison Northwest Supervisory Union residents had on Town Meeting Day backed district unification, thus giving ANwSU towns a 10-cent tax break not this coming year, but the year after.
It was not immediately clear if holding a vote later than March 1 was feasible, said ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning on Tuesday in an email.
“The short story is that delaying the vote is possible but not without complication,” Canning wrote. “We are researching if we can and what impact this would have.”
VUHS board members hope that the unification spoonful of sugar might help what could be a bitter tax pill go down a little easier this year.
“We’re going to have to sell unification. We’re going to have to sell this budget,” said Board Chairwoman Laurie Childers. “It’s going to cost a lot this year. But we can promise a significant reduction next year.”
Meanwhile, board members and ANwSU officials urged each other and the dozen residents and teachers in attendance Monday to lobby local lawmakers to work to change the penalty provision of Act 46 as soon as possible.
“Coming out of this meeting, everybody should be contacting their legislators,” said Canning.
On top of the Act 46 threshold, the other central problem facing the VUHS board members is two-fold: The school’s equalized student count is dropping by 30, and the revenue VUHS will receive from the state is dropping substantially, leaving ANwSU taxpayers to pick up a larger share of the tab to keep the school running.
Because there are technically fewer “equalized” pupils — even though there will not actually be fewer students in September, according to Principal Stephanie Taylor at Monday’s board meeting — the per-pupil cost will increase dramatically.
Officials said equalized students are based on a three-year average, and the school’s enrollment has dropped by 82 students in the past five years, according to Taylor. That average has caught up to VUHS, Canning confirmed in an email, even though the actual student count is not projected to change in the 2016-2017 school year.
The revenue shortfall comes largely in special education. Although those costs are expected to drop by $25,000 next year, projected state support for those services is projected to decline by almost $444,000, according to Canning.
Therefore, according to a presentation made by Canning and Taylor to the board on Monday night, the only way to avoid Act 46’s dollar-for-dollar penalty at VUHS for the 2016-2017 school year — unless the Legislature acts — would be to make almost $1.2 million of cuts to the VUHS budget as it now stands.
They presented such a budget. Just the big-ticket items on the chopping block included:
•  All extracurricular activities, including sports, clubs and school plays. The school’s activities director would not be retained. ($322,048 in savings).
•  The Walden Program ($157,047) and part-time choral position ($40,000).
•  The assistant principal job ($110,000).
•  Supplies and books ($85,000).
•  Cuts in operations and maintenance ($75,000).
“This was a very, very difficult exercise,” said Canning, adding she hoped the board would provide her and Taylor “guidance as we go forward,” while also noting the ANwSU elementary budgets might also trigger “substantial increases.”
Board members were not receptive to the proposal.
“That’s what the cap is doing to this project,” Childers said. “It’s insane.”
At the same time, school board members also were mindful that increasing the VUHS portion of local school taxes by about 20 percent was not ideal.
“I don’t think the taxpayers are going to accept any budget that doubles taxes,” said George Gardner. “I don’t know what the answer is. I wish I did.”
Board member Neil Kamman and Gardner pointed to tax savings from unification in the 2017-2018 year as a carrot to hold out to voters looking at ANwSU budgets this year. Act 46 provides for a 10-cent property tax break during the first year for taxpayers in a district that unifies under Act 46’s provisions. ANwSU has a unification vote set for March 1.
In response, Childers said, “I think you’re saying, ‘We’re asking you to hang tough this year and you’ll see really big savings next year.’”
Kamman finally suggested the board look into delaying the budget vote because it would be better if the board knew how the Legislature dealt with amending Act 46 as well as how the unification vote turned out.
“We can say (to residents) there are too many wild cards,” Kamman said.
His idea was well received by board members and administrators.
“That’s a very good question,” Canning said. “We will ask that question and find the answer.”
Canning was also happy to see the board not adopt the drastic cuts needed to avoid the Act 46 threshold.
“I did not in my wildest dreams believe a budget with $1.2 million in cuts would work,” she said.
The board asked Canning and Taylor to return on Monday with the level-funded option; another plan that would reflect about a 5 percent spending decrease, an amount equal to the percentage of equalized pupil decrease; and tax estimates for each.
Childers also noted that projections call for the trend of declining ANwSU enrollment to continue, and said the board must understand and address the issue.
“We’ve asked our taxpayers to be patient, but it’s time to get a plan to have a budget going forward with less students,” Childers said. “We need to assure our taxpayers we’re working on a plan. We cannot sustain these tax increases.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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