Lothrop-Neshobe merger panned: OVUSD explores options to address $1.6 million shortfall

BRANDON — If a vote on whether to merge Lothrop and Neshobe elementary schools were conducted at the gym where a recent public forum was held, the result would likely be a resounding “No.”
The idea, which would send kindergarten through third-grade students to one school and fourth- through sixth-graders to the other, is one of two “Big Ideas” that were discussed at two public meetings in the Otter Valley Unified School District in the last week.
More than 80 people filled the Otter Valley Union High School auditorium at the first public meeting on Nov. 30. The meeting was moved from its original location in OV’s large cafeteria due to the number of people attending.
Faced with a $1.6 million budget shortfall for the 2017-18 school budget and a 12 cent hike in the local property tax rate, Rutland Northeast Superintendent Jeanne Collins proposed ideas that would cut $769,000 of that, at the RNeSU Board’s request.
But many parents and staff members say that the savings from the Neshobe-Lothrop merger idea, losing three staff positions and adding a $55,000 increase in transportation costs for additional busing, would be negligible compared to the upheaval such a merger would cause in the local educational landscape. Add the increased time Pittsford students would spend riding the bus to get to Brandon and vice versa, and this idea has found very little support in the community.
Those in attendance were also frustrated by the fact that the administration was unable to answer questions as to how much longer students would have to ride the bus, although it’s conceivable that many students’ bus times would increase to over an hour each way.
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 “onetime” 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 other “Big Idea” is to merge the three smallest 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 the third.
Parents in those smaller towns were not happy about that idea, despite the administration’s argument that merging would create more educational opportunities for students.
Stephanie Kellogg is a Leicester parent and business owner in Brandon. She stood and read a statement at the hearing voicing her concerns on Nov. 30.
“I challenge this rationale as my child may not have access to Spanish or a full-time library or music or art teacher, but what they have is much more valuable,” she said. “The hands-on learning model that is provided in a small school environment is teaching our children to become rational beings and future leaders … I would really like to see the board looking for long-term solutions rather than a Band-Aid to the current situation.”
That sentiment was echoed repeatedly at the hearing, where OVUU Board Chair Bonnie Bourne said that the timeline for a board decision on the budget ideas would be six weeks, and that the board would approve a proposed OVUU budget on Jan. 20. That would allow the board to warn a budget for a Town Meeting Day vote in early March.
Abby Radowski is a Rutland High School teacher who said she and her husband, Neshobe Art Teacher John Radowski, just bought a house in Brandon two weeks ago. She urged a slower timeline and more thoughtful approach.
    STEPHANIE KELLOGG OF Leicester makes her opinion on local school consolidation known during the Nov. 30 OVUU public meeting regarding proposed budget cuts.
Brandon Reporter photo/Lee Kahrs
“I would be looking at a different way,” she said. “You’re talking about three positions at three schools. There are more creative things we can do. I don’t want to disrupt 500 families. So let’s trust you to do it, because we think you can. Let’s not rush it. I would support a proposal if I knew it was really well thought-out. There are so many other untold costs that we aren’t looking at. I think your creativity and our ability to help you is going to make it so we don’t have to do that.”
Many people suggested proposing a budget leaving the current school structure intact and cutting in other areas, which would still leave a large tax increase of 8 to 10 cents, but that they would gladly pay for a year while the other ideas are considered and fleshed out for a longer-term solution.
There is also the RNeSU teacher’s contract, which reached impasse in the spring and is still being negotiated with the help of a fact finder. There could be contractual savings there regarding the cost of salary increases and health care benefits.
And a long-term solution is what’s needed. Bourne told those gathered at the hearing that this is not a one-year problem.
“There is nothing on the horizon that leads us to believe this is a one-year problem,” Bourne said. “We anticipate we will be in this position for a period of time … The financial crisis at the state level is what is pushing boards to think beyond what has been done before. Are we prepared to see an annual tax rate increase of 10 to 12 cents every year? I’m at a loss to say what we could do to prevent this from happening.”
When asked for alternatives to the merger ideas, Bourne said there is alternative No. 2, which is to make Lothrop a multi-age classroom school, which would eliminate one position. The size of the classrooms would shift depending on enrollment. Most people seemed to support that idea, which has been considered at Lothrop for several years as enrollment continues to fall.
The only other way to reduce costs enough to create a reasonable tax rate increase would be to cut programs like school sports, theater, art and other ancillary support programs, leaving just the key educational programs required by law.
“That’s happened in a number of schools, but how far can you reduce art or physical education?” Bourne asked. “What can we get a tax rate down to be supported? I wish I though this situation was just a blip and not going to be an annual concern.”
Of course, the bigger animal in the room is that the district moved quickly to merge in 2016 under Act 46 in order to cut costs and qualify for incremental tax rate incentives. Now entering the third year, the OVUU district gets 4 cents off the local school tax rate, down form 8 cents the first year and 6 cents last year. Whiting and Sudbury schools merged, and Barstow became a unified district in the side-by-side partnership.
Now, those savings and incentives are practically null and void in the face of the state’s financial decisions and shortfalls.
Brandon resident Maureen Thornton spoke angrily about the unfairness of the state financial situation.
“Everyone is getting made at you guys,” Thornton said to the board. “I’m not mad at you guys, I’m mad at Montpelier. Montpelier is screwing us! They are trying to change the face of education in Vermont. We shouldn’t be going along with their game. We have to got go to Montpelier! It matters, guys. It matters!”

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