VUHS making cuts to reach $10 million budget

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Union High School board on Monday adopted a $10,026,000 budget proposal for the 2016-2017 school year that represents a 2.23 percent spending cut from current spending.
In what Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent JoAn Canning on Tuesday called an oversight during a lengthy budget discussion, the board did not take up a separate $100,000 capital fund article.
Canning said the board would briefly meet next week to look at such an article, which board members have said is central to their long-range school maintenance plan.
“They expect it to be part of the budget,” Canning said.
Counting that $100,000, total VUHS spending would be reduced by about $134,000, or 1.3 percent, from the current level of almost $10.26 million, assuming voters approve both measures.
It remains uncertain if ANwSU residents will vote on the VUHS and ANwSU elementary budgets on Town Meeting Day or at a later date.
Ideally, Canning said, ANwSU board members would like residents to vote on proposed budgets while knowing two things — if the proposal to unify ANwSU under one-board governance had passed on March 1, and if the Legislature had acted to ease or delay Act 46 penalties on schools and districts with high per-pupil spending.
Because of poor estimates for VUHS special education spending in earlier years, VUHS is paying off a deficit over a three-year term. The amount in both the current and proposed budget is $254,000. At the same time, the school’s enrollment is also dropping, as is next year’s projected state support for special education.
Those three factors are pushing the VUHS per-pupil spending well into the territory where the state will assess ANwSU a dollar-for-dollar spending penalty, with a potentially dramatic impact on ANwSU tax rates even with the cuts.
But the Legislature is considering delaying for a year or at least raising that threshold. The House Education Committee on Tuesday voted to raise the threshold by 0.9 percent (something Canning said “won’t help us at all”), while the governor and the Senate are still arguing for a year’s delay in implementation.
At the same time, the state also offers districts that unify five years of tax breaks, starting with 10 cents in the first year. Although that 10-cent break would not take effect until the 2017-2018 year, ANwSU officials said that if residents knew help was on the way they might be more inclined to support local budgets this year.
Thus, ANwSU boards are exploring holding budget votes later in the spring. Canning said to do so would require residents to approve the change at each school’s annual meeting immediately before Town Meeting Day. Also, budgets cannot be changed from what boards adopt in January, even if there is new information, such as a delay in Act 46 penalty implementation.
“It’s do-able, but it’s very complicated,” Canning said. “Whatever you warn next week, you can’t change, no matter when you vote.”
She hopes lawmakers will recognize that districts, such as ANwSU, are dealing at the same time with tough budget challenges and unification.
“I have been advocating with our representatives to have that decision made in Montpelier, so that all districts that are contemplating unification and don’t want the conversations between the caps and unification to get distracting, to allow them to vote on a school budget later than town meeting,” Canning said.  
Given all the uncertainties, ANwSU officials had not as of earlier this week calculated the tax implications of the VUHS spending plan.
Canning and VUHS Principal Stephanie Taylor presented three VUHS spending plans on Monday, not including the $100,000 capital fund article:
•  One for about $10.3 million that preserved virtually all existing programs and called for a slight increase in spending.
•  One almost $1.2 million lower that would avoid all Act 46 penalties. That budget would have cut, among other things, all sports and other extracurricular activities, including the school play, and the choral program.
•  One that cut about $620,000 from the $10.3 million level. That budget plan was intended to mirror the roughly 5 percent decrease in equalized student numbers.
Board members the week before had rejected the option calling for $1.2 million of reductions as not supportive enough of students’ needs.
Canning on Tuesday said board members on Monday focused in on what would be necessary to support students.
“The conversation last night was can you provide a quality program with a half-million dollars less. And I said it’s going to hurt,” Canning said. “We are going to start to erode our programs.”
Canning said she and Taylor told the board some of the cuts made to cut 5 percent from the $10.3 million budget were feasible, but others begin to affect students.
They told the board they were reluctant to make cuts that included, for example, a math teacher, technology purchases, and a technology specialist that helps teachers integrate the latest technology into their classrooms. 
“There was a lot of discussion about that, and the board said, ‘JoAn and Stephanie, what do you need to run the program?’” Canning said.
Administrators and board members agreed the roughly $10 million figure met that goal, with Canning and Taylor still to determine the exact nature of the reductions.
“Stephanie and I have not made our final decisions. There was a dollar amount that was adopted, and we’re going to make it work,” Canning said.
Some decisions have been made, Canning said.
The biggest savings, almost $88,000, will come from eliminating the school’s in-house agriculture program. Canning said with a similar course offered at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center and VUHS enrollment dropping, the course became a victim of numbers.
“Just like with all of our other programs, we have a class-size policy,” Canning said. “And the ag program attendance had been declining.”
Also on the administrators’ probable reduction list are not rehiring a principal’s secretary, which would save $53,700 in salary and benefits; cutting part-time English and science positions, saving about $44,000; reducing $22,000 apiece from extracurricular activities and Community Based Learning program transportation; lowering expected fuel costs by $35,000; and saving $17,500 by not hiring substitutes for custodians.
Ultimately, Canning said, she and Taylor can find a lower budget that will work for students — even though the actual student count is not expected to drop significantly next year. The lower equalized student number per state figures is the result of a three-year average decline.
“There was consensus around the table that everyone wanted to do the right thing for students,” Canning said.
Board members also repeated their support for unification. 
“The boards are really concerned the community needs to understand that unification really would give us the foundation by which to improve things for kids, but also for taxpayers,” Canning said. “That’s a very strong reason they wanted to separate the vote.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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