Mount Abe budget up 1 percent; proposal preserves staff & programs

BRISTOL — On Town Meeting Day, residents in the Bristol area will vote on a Mount Abraham Union High School budget that cuts spending from the current year by almost 4 percent to $13,389,914. But, because of an anticipated drop in the number of students, the budget proposal OK’d by the Mount Abe school board on Tuesday raises per-pupil spending by around 1 percent.
Board members and Interim Superintendent Armando Vilaseca were relieved that they could keep the spending increase comfortably under the Act 46 spending guideline that would impose a property tax penalty while still providing adequate education programming and no staff cuts.
“When you already have a pretty bare bones budget, there aren’t a lot of places where you can say ‘OK, we’re going to take this out’ without impacting kids. So what we did is say, ‘Where can we start saving here and there?’ So we started looking at many small savings that added up to larger savings,” Vilaseca told the board Tuesday evening.
“Ultimately it’s about how do you maintain programs for kids. How do you make sure that your offerings for students provide what they need to be able to get into whatever the next level of education is, whether it’s university, technical training, whatever,” he continued. “We’ve been able to not touch extracurricular activities, which is very important.”
One of the challenges for the school in figuring this year’s Mount Abe budget, as for all schools around the state, was staying within the tight spending guidelines set by Act 46, which was enacted last spring.
For Mount Abe, the state set an “allowable percentage increase” in spending of 1.35 percent. For every dollar budget over that threshold the state would impose an extra dollar of property taxes.
Like many schools, Mount Abe was doubly challenged because the spending guideline was based on spending per “equalized” pupil (when the state counts students at a school it weights them based on special needs and many other criteria to create an “equalized pupil” count).
Administrators project that Mount Abe will see a drop in “equalized” pupils from this year’s 795.41 to 742.01 next year. (Actual enrollment in 2014-2015 was 711 students; enrollment for the 2015-2016 school year is 659 students.)
Spending per equalized pupil for the 2015-2016 school year is $15,480 at Mount Abe; the proposed budget would nudge spending to $15,610 per equalized pupil for 2016-2017 — an increase of about 1 percent.
Although the Legislature is debating eliminating or easing the threshold, it has not agreed on a plan of action. And Vilaseca explained to the board that he thought it was important to arrive at a budget under the Act 46 1.35 percent threshold to allow the district some wiggle room in case there are further changes from either the Legislature or from the Agency of Education.
Just last Friday, Vilaseca said, the Agency of Education notified schools that its calculation of allowable spending didn’t match the Legislature’s interpretation of the law. For Mount Abe, though, the agency’s last minute calculations didn’t really change, according to Addison Northeast Supervisory Union Chief Financial Officer Howard Mansfield.
Vilaseca credited much of the hard work of crafting the budget to Mansfield, Mount Abe Interim Principal Carol Fenimore and others on the administrative team, who painstakingly went over the spending plan to find ways to shave small savings across multiple line items.
As Vilaseca moved through the proposed budget with the MAUHS school board, he repeatedly pointed out individual areas where the budget team had achieved small savings from hundreds to thousands of dollars. A glance at individual line items shows repeated small savings, from a $6 decrease in costs for English Department audiovisual materials to an $82,884 reduction in Industrial Arts spending that resulted from a voluntary reduction of a 0.63 full-time-equivalent position on the part of an instructor.
Another huge help in budgeting, and one not easily repeated, is a $333,963 surplus carried over from previous budgets.
Also helping to keep the proposed budget under the Act 46 threshold and prevent staff or programming cuts, the central office dramatically decreased its own budget by around $200,000, Vilaseca said.
Important to those crafting the budget, said Vilaseca, was maintaining the current level of academic and extracurricular programming.
“Maintaining programming is what’s most important,” he said. “That’s the number-one priority, and I think we were able to do that.”
An example of one small move to accomplish this includes reassigning some teachers from an 11th-grade study hall to other academic classes. At present, maximum class size at Mount Abe is 24 students. Teachers are contracted to teach at maximum 125 students.
“That is again one of those ways that working together we were able to figure out how can we increase opportunities for kids without costing us any more money and not reducing staff, which you guys did last year,” Vilaseca said. “You took some hits here last year.”
Although overall enrollment is projected to go down, Vilaseca said middle school enrollment is expected to increase by around 48 students, with a larger cohort coming into the seventh grade.
Among the few new expenditures for the upcoming school year, the budget includes $13,533 for new math textbooks to bring Mount Abe’s math program further in line with the Common Core standards.
Vilaseca emphasized the “bare bones” nature of this year’s budget and said it was important to be looking ahead to needed maintenance on the building. The proposed budget includes badly needed repairs to the locker rooms and gym floor, Fenimore noted. But Vilaseca said that, given the age of the building and the overall need for a variety of repairs, the community will want to be thinking ahead about what it wants to do to maintain the facility.
“The good news,” Vilaseca informed the MAUHS board, “is that this budget reflects a budget that stays below the 1.35 perfect threshold that was given to us by the state. That’s a good thing. Another good thing  is that we’re able to provide the same level of programs for kids next year as we’re providing this year, which to me is huge making sure that program-wise we’re moving forward.
“And we’re not having to reduce any staff.  We have the same staff, and we have a growing  middle school even though our overall population at the school has declined.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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