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ACSD readies for budget challenge; level funding could mean $2.2 million in cuts

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central School District board on Monday asked administrators to draft a level-funded fiscal year 2019 budget for the district’s nine public schools, a spending level that officials said would require roughly $2.2 million in cuts due to contracted personnel expenses and other fixed costs.
But officials stressed the initial budget draft is just a departure point, aimed at satisfying Gov. Phil Scott’s recommendation that school districts strive for level spending next year to take stress off property taxpayers and reflect the ongoing decline in Vermont’s student population.
“I don’t need to tell you $2.2 million is a lot of money,” Steve Orzech, leader of the ACSD board’s finance committee, told his colleagues at their Monday evening gathering. “I think it would be devastating to our school. But we at least need to see what it looks like and make a good-faith effort to meet (Scott’s) request.”
In a related move, the ACSD board unanimously agreed to offer the district’s early retirement incentive program to as many of the district’s qualifying veteran teachers who might want to take advantage of it. Usually, school districts offer a specific number of early retirement incentive opportunities as part of a broader budget trimming strategy. The district then holds a lottery if there are more takers than slots available. But this year, the district will entertain an unlimited number of qualified applicants.
The early retirement program offers qualifying teachers compensation for years remaining until retirement as an inducement to leave early. This in turn allows the district to phase out teaching jobs through attrition rather than layoffs, or hire replacements at cheaper salaries. Orzech said the ACSD could save as much as $84,000 in salary and benefits through a teaching position eliminated through retirement.
But officials stressed early retirement incentives won’t alone solve the upcoming budget challenge.
“In the best of conditions, if we were to get enough people and don’t have to replace them, it is unlikely to reach the $2.2 million mark,” Orzech said.
Districts have to be careful in how they manage early retirements, however. For example, a district doesn’t want to see a large number of qualifying teachers from a single school department leave simultaneously through early retirement. Qualifying teachers must have a minimum of 20 years in the teaching system and at least five of those years working in the ACSD.
“Obviously, we cannot operate the school without a math department,” Orzech said.
Addison Central voters this past March approved their first-ever unified, K-12 budget by a 1,363 to 466 margin. The $37.2 million spending plan covers educational and administrative expenses for Middlebury Union middle and high schools and the elementary schools in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. The current ACSD budget covers school costs through June 30, 2018. The new budget — to be fielded by voters in all seven communities on Town Meeting Day next March — will address school expenses from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019.
District officials have warned the fiscal year 2019 budget is shaping up to be one of the most challenging in the recent history of Middlebury-area schools. Some of the challenges are being created by shortfalls in the state’s education fund. The decline in the ACSD’s student population — which means less per-pupil financing from the state and a smaller student-teacher ratio — is also putting pressure on the budget.
There are currently 1,704 students being served in grades K-12 in the ACSD. That’s down 11 students from last year. Looking ahead, district officials are anticipating a drop of around 119 students by the 2022-2023 academic year. The ACSD projections anticipate incoming annual kindergarten classes of around 120.
It should also be noted the ACSD board applied $791,000 in fund balance from fiscal year 2016 to help soften the financial blow of this year’s budget. It’s not yet clear what surplus funds might be available to apply to the fiscal year 2019 spending plan.
Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe earlier this month painted a rather grim statewide picture on school finances.
“We will be entering the next budget cycle with an almost $50 million Education Fund budget gap, due in large part to use of one-time money to reduce the tax rate,” Holcombe wrote in an Oct. 4 memo to all district superintendents, business managers and school board members in Vermont (read the full letter by clicking here). “We face uncertainty regarding what reductions in federal funds will occur, although some population-driven appropriations are already declining. We know that the majority of Vermonters have not experienced growth in their real incomes over the past decade, and thus have constrained capacity to support investments in education.”
She urged school officials to be proactive and creative in solving their respective budget challenges.
“As schools and class sizes shrink, per-pupil costs increase,” she noted. “We need to be clear-eyed about both our fiscal capacity and the opportunity cost of our small and shrinking ratios. Preserving quality means thinking hard about how we use our dollars, to ensure the investments we make are actually those that increase opportunities for children and those that ensure the greatest value out of every precious tax dollar we spend.”
Holcombe offered some sobering statistics as part of her message.
Vermont has had the lowest student-teacher ratio for all 50 states during the past four available years of data, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. The most recent figures, from the 2014-2015 academic year, shows an average statewide student-teacher ratio of 10.55-to-1 in Vermont, according to NCES. Regionally, New Hampshire and Massachusetts recorded ratios of 12.5-to-1 and 13.3-to-1, respectively, during that same year.
“Educational researchers typically define a ‘small class’ as being fewer than 20 students,” Holcombe wrote in her memo. “In Vermont, our classes are half as big as what other states consider small. No research supports the notion that staffing ratios as small as ours lead to better outcomes. Our results are not proportional to our investment, which invites the question of whether we are investing the right way.”
She acknowledged many districts have been trimming their teaching ranks, but not their overall personnel — such as administrators, paraprofessionals, custodians, office managers and food service workers. Holcombe pointed to statistics showing there were a combined total of 17,969 staff serving Vermont’s 76,355 students last school year. That’s a ratio of 4.25 students per staff member.
“Teacher numbers are declining, but declines are offset by increases in other staffing functions, especially support staff,” Holcombe added. “Thus, our overall staffing numbers are not declining as fast as our student numbers and our total student-to-staff ratios are still declining … These data mean we currently employ about almost one adult for every four children we serve, and if we do not change our playbook, we could end up employing one adult for every three children.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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