OVUU weighs its options for elementary schools

BRANDON — A directive from the Otter Valley Unified Union School Board to level fund the next budget may result in a very different educational landscape in the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union.
In the face of massive shortfalls caused by state funding cuts and continued falling enrollment in an aging state, RNeSU Superintendent Jeanne Collins rolled out some “Big Ideas” and presented them to the OVUU Board at a Nov. 15 meeting. Now, those ideas are being met with resistance from parents and staff alike as two important public forums are planned to receive public input on the proposals.
Faced with a $1.6 million budget shortfall for the 2017-18 spending plan, Collins proposed three ideas that would cut $769,000 of that. And because OVUU is a merged school district under Act 46, there are more options as far as moving students and staff between schools under the law.
Big Idea No. 1 is to merge the three smallest elementary schools in the district — Leicester, Whiting and Sudbury. Whiting and Sudbury merged last year, with pre-K through third grade at Whiting and fourth through sixth grade at Sudbury. Collins proposes bringing Leicester into the three-way school merger that would split up pre-K into one school, kindergarten through second grade in another, and third through sixth grade in another. Collins said no decisions have been made about which grades would be in which schools, and a news report in a regional newspaper incorrectly stated that Leicester Central School would close.
“It caused a lot of damage, because then the radio stations picked up the story and continued broadcasting incorrect information,” Collins said.
That proposal to merge the three small schools would reduce staffing by three teachers, a half-time principal and possibly some clerical staff.
Big Idea No. 2 may be the most controversial. While enrollment at the Neshobe Elementary School in Brandon has remained steady, student numbers at the Lothrop Elementary School in Pittsford continue to fall. Collins proposes a merger of the two schools much like that with the Leicester, Whiting and Sudbury idea, where one school is Pre-K through third grade and the other school is fourth through sixth grade. Again, no decisions have been made as to how the grades would be split up and to which school.
The Neshobe/Lothrop proposal would reduce staff by three teachers.
A third, smaller idea addresses the declining enrollment at Barstow Elementary School in Chittenden, where more kids are graduating than are being enrolled. Collins proposes a reduction of one full-time teacher there.
In an interview this past Monday, Collins said that it’s important to note that under her proposals, all OVUU schools will remain open.
“These proposals bring in a level budget and maintain services and educational levels to our students,” she said. “All the schools will remain open, but there would be reconfigured education models instead of closing schools.”
Otter Valley Union High School would also see a reduction of three full-time teachers under the proposal, Collins said.
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 FY2018 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.
“With the state underfunding school districts to recapture health care savings, an anticipated 7- to 9-cent tax increase partially caused by the underfunding of the education fund at the state level by $47 million shifted over to the general fund instead,” Collins wrote in an email to staff earlier this month, “and our Act 46 merger incentive is decreasing by 2 cents again this year, combined with normal contractual salary and benefit increases, the board is facing the need to reduce spending by $1.6 million if they wish to avoid a tax increase.”
There may be some help to soften the blow of letting staff go. The RNeSU and OVUU Boards have offered a $1,000 separation incentive to any employee who notifies the district of intent to resign or retire as of the end of the school year. Collins said that as of Nov. 20, 17 staff members had taken advantage of the incentive plan, including teachers, administrators and support staff.
“That will help us reduce costs by attrition rather than by a reduction in force,” she said.
Within the RNeSU staff, Collins said another three to five staff members would be cut as well, under the proposal.
Falling enrollment is a statewide problem that began over a decade ago and shows no sign of stopping as Vermont’s population ages and young families move elsewhere for better-paying jobs. OVUU is not the only district in Vermont facing this challenge, Collins said, and she defended her proposals.
“We are not going to tweak our way to a level-funded budget, not this year,” Collins said. “These proposals are based on taxes going up 10 to 12 cents. We cannot keep on doing what we are doing and reduce spending by $1.6 million. In the past, each school had to deal with declining enrollments on its own, often either raising taxes significantly or creating ever-changing class configurations.
“As a merged district, we can look at new ideas, across schools, to provide the optimal learning environment for students.”
And there is the fact that falling enrollment and half-empty classrooms do not make the best use of the district’s buildings.
“Honestly, it doesn’t,” Collins said. “And it doesn’t make sense on a student-achievement level, either. Next year, we’re going to have three first-graders in Leicester. Three.”
There are two public forums scheduled to discuss the proposals. The first is one is Thursday, Nov. 30, at 6:30 p.m. at Otter Valley Union High School in the large cafeteria.
The second forum is Tuesday, Dec. 5, also at 6:30 p.m. in the OV large cafeteria.
“Change is scary, but so is the idea of cutting here and there over and over until the fabric and quality of education is compromised,” Collins said. “I think we need to start having conversations about our educational opportunities and best class size. This proposal is intended to maintain every school within our communities.”

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