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State funding news ‘shrinks’ ACSD school budget problem to $1.3M

MIDDLEBURY — Public school officials often lament the unpredictability of Vermont’s education funding system. It is not unusual for state aid information to be released in dribs and drabs, sometimes right up to the point at which school districts must finalize their budgets for Town Meeting Day votes.
This year has been no different. But a batch of state aid information received on Dec. 17 buoyed the spirits of Addison Central School District directors, who learned the Vermont Agency of Education has agreed to increase the ACSD student count by 53.
The agency’s new interpretation of the Middlebury area school district’s enrollment — which keys on pre-K children who weren’t counted this year, but will be next year — boosts anticipated state aid and thus reduces pressure on the district’s current budget by $522,000, according to Ruth Hardy, leader of the ACSD’s finance committee.
The ACSD 2018-19 spending plan will cover operating Middlebury Union middle and high schools and elementary schools in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. On Dec. 18, for the second Monday in a row, around 100 people jammed into the MUHS band room to hear and comment on the ACSD board’s budget deliberations.
“When Superintendent Burrows texted me (with the budget update) last night, I said ‘It’s a Hanukkah miracle!’” said Hardy, who at the time was eating a latke, a Jewish potato pancake.
“I think it’s good news,” Hardy added. “It’s not everything that everybody might want, but it is a better situation than we were in last week.”
Instead of facing $1.9 million in cuts to avoid increases over this year’s ACSD spending, officials are now looking to trim around $1.33 million.
District officials are now tentatively restoring some of the cuts that had been proposed last week. That initial round of reductions included 14 teaching positions, 18 paraprofessionals, a principal, a central office worker, and a $98,745 reduction in facilities maintenance, technology, school-based supplies and professional development.
Based on the latest state aid info, the district’s finance committee on Monday offered a revised plan that includes elimination of four teaching positions at MUHS and three at MUMS, for a projected savings of $385,000; reduction of eight paraprofessionals (four from Mary Hogan Elementary School, one from Ripton elementary, one from MUMS and two from MUHS), for a savings of $188,000; and cutting half of a position at the ACSD central office, saving $26,500.
Officials project more savings by not filling three positions to be vacated by retirees ($255,000) next spring, hiring less expensive candidates to fill six other positions to be vacated by retirees ($208,675), and saving another $233,893 through attrition.
Finance committee members are also proposing to defer, until fiscal year 2020, plans to reduce the district’s elementary school’s principalships by 1.6 full-time equivalent positions.
At the same time, the committee is proposing to add $40,000 back to the proposed budget for professional development and restore $20,000 that had been eyed for cuts in supplies, technology and facilities maintenance.
The resulting $1,335,838 in reductions would establish an equalized, per-pupil spending rate of $16,809 for 2018-2019, compared to the $17,215 the district is currently spending, according to Business Manager Josh Quinn.
Monday’s revised proposal would keep the ACSD well below the $17,816 per-pupil spending threshold that, per Vermont law, would trigger education tax penalties for the state’s highest-spending districts. And it would also keep the ACSD $374,000 below the level-funding scenario (based on per-pupil spending) that school directors voted to pursue on Dec. 11.
BOARD DEBATE
School board members Jason Duquette-Hoffman and Steve Orzech questioned the board’s current budget tack, given the new, $374,000 cushion between it and level funding.
“We made a statement as a board about a direction for the budget process,” Duquette-Hoffman said of the board’s Dec. 11 level-funding vow. “The inputs have changed this week. We’re fortunate to be maybe looking to cut less … It feels odd to me that we’re a week in, and dealing with so much change, and yet we’re already talking again about moving the goalposts about what we’re budgeting, again. Why don’t we continue under our previous motion?”
Orzech, a Vergennes Union High School teacher, said the $374,000 cushion could allow the district to restore a few more of the teaching positions targeted for cuts.
But a majority of the board voted to continue on the current budgeting path, arguing they could continue to add or subtract from the spending plan until late January, when it must be finalized for a March vote by district residents.
And some board members said the more conservative budgeting approach could save future headaches if the district receives a gloomier state aid picture in the future.
“These numbers are going to change during the next two weeks,” said board member Nick Custom.
Peter Conlon, ACSD board chairman, advised his colleagues to make tough decisions this year to help make future budgeting more sustainable. Not taking that approach, he said, would be “postponing difficult decisions to a future year.”
But it’s clear future education budgeting won’t be easy for any school district in Vermont, and especially those that are seeing declining enrollment.
ACSD is expected to lose 51 students next year and 110 over the next five years. The district’s enrollment has declined by more than 21 percent since 2000. Most of the state’s districts are seeing a similar decline as Vermont’s population continues to gray. Fewer students in a district means less state aid.
The student-teacher ratio in the district has declined from 9.47-1 during the 2004-2005 academic year, to 8.37-1 during the current school year. Maintaining existing staff (coupled with the loss of 51 students) would further reduce the student-teacher ratio to 8.11-1.
Officials said last week that maintaining current ACSD staffing would mean an 18-cent (11.4 percent) increase 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.
The Vermont Agency of Education is projecting a $94.5 million shortfall 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.
MEETING QUESTIONS
ACSD employees and students’ parents made up a majority of the crowd at this Monday’s budget meeting. They urged the board to minimize personnel cuts, noting in part that schools are being called to play an increasing role in students’ lives. In addition to providing education, schools are being asked to look out for students’ emotional, behavioral and nutritional welfare, said some at the meeting.
Former UD-3 school board chairman Leonard Barrett questioned the board’s decision in creating the budget for the current year to apply $791,720 in fund balance to stabilize this year’s education property taxes. Barrett had urged the board to save that money for future school capital projects. He said saving that money would have helped reduce the board’s current budget difficulties.
“You would be trouble-free, almost, if you didn’t turn that $791,000 back to the taxpayers,” Barrett said.
Jennifer Billings is a math teacher at MUMS who works in particular with students who need extra help.
“We have so many students in our building that need alternative education,” Billings said. “That population of students is so volatile, because they are adolescents, they are going through puberty, and we’re trying to educate them.”
“I can’t even imagine our building with three less teachers, because we are all out straight, every day,” she added.
Middlebury resident Maria Graham said she was particularly concerned about the proposed MUMS cuts.
“Can’t we decide as a community that we don’t agree with that level of staffing at the middle school?” Graham said. “We talk so much about equity, and the first time our kids get a chance at a truly equitable education is in seventh grade, as a district.”
Hardy called MUMS “an incredibly resilient school” possessing some of the district’s best teachers. But she added MUMS is projected to serve 30 fewer students next year and currently has a student-teacher ratio of 8.7 to 1, the third among ACSD schools.
“We are trying to look at this holistically,” she said.
Others voiced concern that the revised list of potential cuts still includes some paraprofessionals. They argued paraprofessionals are key in dealing with student classroom behavior issues, thus allowing classes to proceed without distractions.
Michael Sassin, a special educator at the Mary Hogan School, said paraprofessionals’ value can’t be underestimated.
“When we’re talking about kids and what makes them good citizens later on, it’s not just about learning to write or read an essay, and it’s not just about learning algebra in 7th grade,” Sassin said. “It’s about being socially and emotionally developed, so they can pass on the caring that they’ve received. Unfortunately, we live in a world when the public school is the new hub for mental and behavioral health. That’s the truth, and it costs a lot of money.”
MUHS math teacher Colleen Ringquist suggested the board not base teacher cuts exclusively on enrollment numbers.
“I think it’s important to recognize that 50 fewer kids doesn’t translate into two nice sections that you just cut,” Ringquist said. “It’s not as nice and neat as it sounds.”
Rinquist noted ACSD is transitioning to an International Baccalaureate curriculum. But she added ACSD must also run parallel programs for current students already well into their high school careers. Cutting staff during the transition would be unwise, she said.
Addison Central directors will hold another budget meeting at the MUHS band room on Thursday, Jan. 11, at 6:30 p.m. The board at that time expects to have more financial news from the state and a detailed draft of a 2018-2019 spending plan.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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