Otter Valley school district ready for major cuts

BRANDON — Faced with a state Education Fund shortfall of $47 million, officials in the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union are preparing to make drastic cuts within the local Otter Valley Unified Union School District this coming budget season.
RNeSU Superintendent Jeanne Collins said in an interview late last month that the RNeSU Board wants to prepare taxpayers for a potential $1.6 million cut across the OVUU budget.
“The RNeSU Board wanted to let the taxpayers know what the budget landscape was early on,” Collins said.
State officials have warned of a potential Education Fund shortfall of $80 million with a projected tax rate increase of 7-9 cents, assuming a statewide education increase of 3 percent.
The state has suggested that the increase would result in, for example, a $200 tax increase on a $250,000 home.
There are a host of factors that led to this deficit at the state level. Earlier this year, the state decided to prop up the current fiscal year 2018 budget with about $47 million in “one-time” funds that were taken primarily from an end-of-year surplus and an education reserve fund.
Collins said the state also underfunded school districts due to increased health care costs — in OVUU to the tune of $314,000 less than what the district previously received.
The OVUU School District is comprised of Otter Valley Union High School, Neshobe School in Brandon, Sudbury/Whiting Elementary School, Leicester Central School, and Lothrop Elementary School in Pittsford. It serves students and taxpayers in Brandon, Leicester, Sudbury, Whiting, Goshen and Pittsford. Barstow Elementary School is a side-by-side district partner, and it has it’s own budget.
Two proposals floated last spring at the state level could have helped the state shortfall tremendously. One was that state school districts all level fund their budgets for the current fiscal year, but that did not happen due to increased costs for health care and falling enrollment.
Many school districts including OVUU, jumped through the necessary hoops to reconfigure and merge under Act 46 in order to qualify for four years of tax rate incentives, 8 cents the first year, 6 cents the second year, 4 cents the third year and 2 cents the fourth year.
The second factor was Gov. Phil Scott’s push for a statewide health care contract for all school employees. The initiative would have saved the state millions in healthcare costs as more than half the state’s teachers contracts are up for renewal. But there was strong push back from the state office of the National Education Association, charging that the plan would negate collective bargaining. Scott also proposed the idea of a statewide health care plan for school employees in April, much too late in the legislative session for the issue to be fully vetted and resolved.
That issue is not dead, however. The Vermont School Boards Association is developing recommendations for solutions that would include a statewide teacher health care agreement negotiated by school boards and unions.
And here we are. For its part, the RNeSU Board and the OVUU Board are thankful for the area’s successful Act 46 school district merger two years ago. The district is in the 6 cent tax rate incentive year.
“We would be paying 6 percent more taxes this year had we not merged,” Collins said.
What the district does not know is how much of that $1.6 million shortfall it will really have to cut in the OVUU. Collins said about $1 million of it is dependent upon what the state sets as the education tax rate, which won’t be known until the spring.
In addition, local tax rates under Act 46 are limited to rise or fall no more than 5 percent.
And one more thing. The OVUU contract with the paraeducators and bus drivers is in imposition and the contract with teachers is in impasse, so salary and health care costs for the next fiscal year are unknown and can only be estimated.
“So, we don’t know what all of this will mean for the state education fund deficit,” Collins said, “and this is the overall environment in which the board is looking at what to do, to improve student achievement in the most cost-effective way possible.”
Collins said in anticipation of the current situation, a math teaching position and a special education position at Otter Valley Union High School were not filled this school year. That decision meant no Math Lab, a program the district wanted to start to help students who are struggling with math. It also meant an increased special ed caseload for current special educators.
Collins said updated staffing projections are expected the first week in November, which will give the board parameters on where staff cuts could be made as budget season begins.
All in all, the newly merged OVUU district, which restructured the small schools of Whiting and Sudbury to six grades over two schools, and created shared programs and staff across the new district, may have to restructure again in order to cut costs.
“We are going to have to make significant structural changes if we’re going to offer quality education that is affordable,” Collins said.
When asked what she meant by “structural changes,” she said, “Loss of programs, reconfiguring grades,” adding that it isn’t necessarily a negative move.
“That’s what we did in Sudbury and Whiting, and now those students have peer groups, Sudbury has band, which it never had before. There are single-grade classrooms now instead of multi-grade classrooms. So we don’t need to be afraid of these changes, but there will be changes. We have to look at all of our buildings and how we’re offering high school.”
That said, Collins doubled down on massive program cuts, which could reduce enrollment even more.
“We can’t cut to the bone where there are electives and enrichment activities, or else we will lose students,” she said.
The district has been creative with its staffing needs in order to trim budgetary fat. A half-time secretary at the Neshobe School was bumped up to full-time and put in charge of free and reduced-price lunch reporting across the entire supervisory union, where before each school did its own reporting, thus consolidating and streamlining the process.
In another instance, when the librarian at Lothrop Elementary School left, OVUU hired a full-time replacement by reconfiguring the position to 80 percent Lothrop and 20 percent at Sudbury, Whiting and Leicester, three small schools that had never had a librarian.
The part-time art teacher that previously traveled to those small schools left the district, and the supervisory union knew it would be hard to find a replacement for the position because it did not come with benefits. So, it partnered with Barstow and its part-time art teacher, who was looking for full-time work, and made her a full-time RNeSU employee serving Barstow and the small schools.
That kind of staff sharing within the district was made possible under the Act 46 merger.
Collins said RNeSU is offering a $1,000 cash retirement incentive to any employee who agrees in writing by Nov. 12 that they will resign and retire by June 30, 2018.
“The reason is so that we can make staff changes through attrition instead of a reduction in employees,” she said.
Collins added that the incentive is not designed to force people to retire as much as it may be encouragement for those who are thinking about retirement but are undecided. She said that the incentive is being offered instead of early retirement packages, which are costly.
The proposed OVUU budget for fiscal year 2018/19 must be approved by the boards by January in order to warn it in time for the Town Meeting Day vote.
“It’s going to be a thoughtful process,” Collins said.

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