Middlebury-area school board on path to level-funded budget; teachers brace for layoffs

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central School District (ACSD) board on Monday agreed to pursue a level-funded budget for member-schools for the upcoming 2018-2019 academic year, a move that would require more than $1.9 million in cuts and a potential reduction of 14 teaching positions, 18 paraprofessionals, a principal’s post and a central office worker.
School directors struggled with their decision, which they made after two hours of impassioned debate and input from some of the approximately 100 people — including teachers — who packed the Middlebury Union High School band room to follow the panel’s first major budget building session this year.
The 2018-19 spending plan will cover education services for Middlebury Union middle and high schools and the elementary schools in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.
Officials said they had no choice but to advance some major cuts in light of some sobering financial and demographic realities at both the local and state levels. Here’s the bad news, as tabulated by ACSD administrators and the board’s finance committee:
•  Without personnel cuts, the ACSD budget would require an 18-cent (11.4 percent) bump in the local education property tax rate. Such an increase could add $452 to the property tax bill of a homestead valued at $250,000.
“I agree that we cannot present our community with an 11-percent tax rate increase,” said ACSD board member Ruth Hardy, leader of the finance committee.
•  The district is expected to lose 51 students next year and 110 over the next five years. The ACSD’s enrollment has declined by more than 21 percent since 2000. Fewer students means less state aid.
“Our largest class from the entire district is graduating this year; our smallest class in the district is our sixth-grade class, and that class will be entering MUMS,” Hardy said. “We will see a significant decline of students at the high school and middle school levels.”
•  The Vermont Agency of Education is projecting a $94.5 million funding gap in the state’s education fund, which would require, on average, a tax rate increase of 9.4 cents to plug, according to the Department of Taxes.
•  The student-teacher ratio in the district has declined from 9.47-to-one during the 2004-2005 academic year, to 8.37-to-one during the current school year. Maintaining existing staff (coupled with the loss of 51 students) would further reduce the student-teacher ratio to 8.12-to-one. Implementing the proposed cuts would put the ratio at 8.88-to-one.
•  The ACSD is in its second year of transitioning to a consolidated school system. It received a 10-cent reduction on the tax-affecting portion of its fiscal year 2018 school budget as a reward for endorsing governance consolidation through Act 46. That dividend will decrease by 2 cents next year to an 8 cent break, a loss of approximately $355,000.
•  While the state giveth through Act 46, it is taking away money in another area. The state Legislature this past spring set a threshold of an 80 percent-20 percent split in health care premium contributions by school districts and teachers, respectively. The state said it would dock state aid from school districts whose contracts failed to meet that threshold. The ACSD teachers’ pact — finalized just before the Legislature’s 80-20 mandate — calls for annual splits of 85-15 in year one, 84-16in calendar year 2018, and 83.5-16.5 in 2019. That’s costing the ACSD $475,478 in withheld education funding, according to district officials.
As of Monday, the finance committee was proposing to cut 18 paraprofessional posts, including 14 from Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary, two from MUHS, one from MUMS and one from Ripton Elementary. The panel is calling for 14 fewer teaching positions, and it looks like three of those can be achieved by attrition, through anticipated retirements at the elementary school level. The remaining 11 would come through teacher layoffs at MUMS (five) and MUHS (six).
The committee’s proposal also includes cutting an administrative assistant position from the ACSD central office, and eliminating 1.6 full-time equivalent principal positions. If approved by the board — and ultimately, the taxpayers — this would result in two principals sharing oversight of three elementary schools.
Committee members are also proposing $98,745 in cuts to facilities maintenance, technology, school-based supplies and professional development.
All told, the menu of cuts would save $1,976,603, according to district officials.
“This is by far the hardest budget we’ve ever had to work to put together,” Hardy said.
It should be noted Monday’s budget news could get better, or worse, before a final ACSD spending plan is finalized for voters next month. District Business Manager Josh Quinn was anticipating additional state aid information by this Friday, Dec. 15. And veteran teachers still have time to consider an early retirement incentive offer that could reduce layoffs.
Board members lamented the size and scope of the potential reductions, and they accepted some blame for the district’s current financial conundrum. The ACSD board last year elected to apply $791,720 of the district’s fiscal year 2016 fund balance for tax stabilization this year.
And some officials lamented not having made budget cuts sooner to reflect a shrinking student body.
“As we came together as a unified board, we inherited a lot of traditions from other schools and how they budgeted,” ACSD board Chairman Peter Conlon said. “One of those traditions was to not deal head-on with declining enrollment. And I will say the leadership I brought to the UD-3 board was somewhat guilty of that, as well.
“These are headwinds we didn’t create, it’s just the reality we are facing,” he added.
But ACSD staff are now bracing for those headwinds, and some spoke up at Monday’s meeting. Some of the district’s educators noted the cuts come at a time when the ACSD is transitioning to an International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum. MUHS teacher Bjarki Sears, a leader of the teachers’ union, said he is a big supporter of IB, but is “nervous” about implementation plans with district staff now in flux.
Addison Central is the only pre-K-12 public school district in the state currently seeking IB recognition.
“There’s no question that there’s declining enrollment and money needs to be saved,” Sears said. “But we’re actually trying something that is largely unprecedented here … We’re doing something pretty big, which means we need the support to do that.
“My fear is that we are going to have our legs cut out from under us,” Sears added.
Retired MUHS teacher Mark Mooney urged the board to “totally disaggregate” all IB-related costs from the rest of the budget. Such a move, he said, would provide a “transparent look” at the true costs of implementing the IB program.
Mooney also suggested the district charge a nominal rent to the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center for use of its Charles Avenue headquarters. He noted the building is owned by the ACSD, but the career center also received students from the Addison Northwest and Addison Northeast school district.
“That would do, what in my mind, is fair,” he said of a rental agreement.
Leigh Harder is a Weybridge Elementary School teacher. She asked the school board to be aware of the stress the potential staffing cuts could place on school operations.
“I want to remind everyone that a school district has multiple systems within it, and it is composed basically of people,” Harder said. “As a teacher, our business is largely relational.”
MUHS teacher Chris Altemose said he’s particularly concerned about plans to cut 14 paraprofessionals from Mary Hogan Elementary.
“I think cutting 14 paraprofessionals that have day-to-day, direct impact with young people in that building would drastically affect the learning experience for those children,” Altemose said. He added removing those paraprofessionals could force classroom teachers to spend more time on behavioral issues and less time educating students.
MUHS Science teacher Cindy Atkins agreed. She said the students losing paraprofessionals are likely to have more learning difficulties as they move into MUMS, and then MUHS.
“This is too much, too quickly,” she said of the cuts. “We are not building widgets. This is about relationships, and day-in, day-out working hard with kids.”
The ACSD Board will hold at least two more public meetings on the budget, and invited more people to react to the potential cuts and offer their own budget solutions.
There are no easy fixes, according to board member Steve Orzech.
He reasoned that unveiling what many believed was the most dire, level-funded budget scenario for district schools could present a springboard for the community to lobby for some of the services and positions in peril. But he said he received even more dramatic financial news as a member of the board’s finance committee.
“(Level funding) isn’t the worst-case scenario; there’s a lot worse out there,” Orzech said.
Specifically, he said Gov. Phil Scott has suggested school districts explore staff cuts of 20 percent, which would translate to 32 in the ACSD.
Orzech and other ACSD board members said they’re open to speaking with teachers’ union leaders to see if there might be some creative ways of cutting personnel costs without laying off as many teachers and paraprofessionals. The board is also encouraging veteran teachers to take advantage of the early retirement incentive program.
“That might change the equation,” Orzech said of early retirements.
It’s an equation Orzech saw play out as a Vergennes Union High School teacher around five years ago in the Addison Northwest School District. Officials in that district elected to spread the cuts over multiple years, he said, which made teachers uneasy on an annual basis.
“I’ve got to tell you, the cuts over time is not only more painful than getting it all done at once, it creates a lot of disruption,” Orzech said. “If we can tackle at least a good portion (of the budget problem) this year, we won’t have to go through that pain year after year after year.”
Board member Jason Duquette-Hoffman offered a motion that would have called on the finance committee to build a level-funded budget that prioritized “meeting classroom needs as we understand them now.”
“It is important to take a stand on these priorities,” Duquette-Hoffman said.
Fellow board member Mary Gill supported his motion.
“We have to be more objective, in terms of what the needs of the students are,” Gill said.
Duquette-Hoffman’s motion was defeated by voice vote, however, with a majority of board members saying they believed the current budget draft was already built with student education as the top priority.
Board member Chris Eaton said the board should do more long-range fiscal planning for the district in an effort to lessen future chances for a one-year budget crisis. In the meantime, he asked the finance committee to see if the ACSD might have some flexibility under the state’s per-pupil spending restrictions to lessen the cuts for next year.
“The shock to the system is something we need to take into account, no matter what the numbers say,” Eaton said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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