Up to 20 teachers and aides could be cut in Bristol-area schools

BRISTOL — Bristol-area voters on March 6 will field their first-ever unified budget covering all Addison Northeast schools.
The proposed 2018-2019 spending plan now under consideration calls for elimination of 20 full-time-equivalent staff positions — including six full-time teachers — in order to achieve the $1,177,814 in reductions needed to meet the Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD) board’s austerity guidelines.
The MAUSD board and Superintendent Patrick Reen unfurled the draft $28,757,799 spending plan at a public meeting that drew around 100 people to Bristol’s Holley Hall this past Wednesday, Jan. 3. Some of the attendees were Addison Northeast educators who questioned the proposed staffing cuts and a parallel plan to mitigate some of those impacts. Under this plan the schools would hire a school psychologist, 1.2 full-time-equivalent (FTE) special educator positions and 6.3 FTE “coordinator/coach/interventionists.” Those coaches would assist in training and supporting classroom teachers, while relieving them from some of the multi-day conference sessions that aren’t paying enough educational dividends, according to Addison Northeast administrators.
The MAUSD budget will cover expenses for operating Mount Abraham Union Middle and High Schools, the elementary schools in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro, and the Addison Northeast central office. Those entities had previously developed their own, individual spending plans. Addison Northeast voters in November 2016 endorsed school governance unification through Act 46, which will soon result in the disbanding of all of the individual school boards in favor of the single MAUSD panel that includes representatives from all five communities.
The five-town community learned last week that the first year of unification will require some belt tightening. The MAUSD board on Oct. 24 had asked Reen to prepare a fiscal year 2019 budget reflecting $16,224.50 in per-pupil spending — the same as the district is spending this year.
A tough assignment, given financial realities and enrollment trends within the Addison Northeast and indeed, throughout Vermont. Reen and his staff learned that achieving an equalized per-pupil spending level of $16,229.47 — which is still $4.97 above the board’s guideline — would require $1,177,814 in reductions to meet a target of $24,501,266 in education spending for fiscal year 2019.
“That’s a lot of money; it’s a big challenge,” Reen said.
Here’s the menu of cuts Reen pitched last Wednesday:
•  Elimination of 16.16 FTE support staff positions, including 9.6 special education assistants, 3.16 custodial jobs, 3 general education assistants and 0.4 FTE SLP (speech language pathologist).
•  11.9 FTE professional positions, including six classroom teachers (five from the elementary level), 2.5 central office positions, a nurse, 1.6 “special areas” teachers and a 0.8 FTE SLP.
Reen said the current teachers’ contract spells out how the reduction in force will take place, with seniority being a significant factor.
•  0.45 FTE administrator positions.
All of these cuts add up to around 28 FTE, but the proposed addition of the aforementioned teaching coaches, special educators and school psychologist would produce a net staffing decrease of 20 FTE, according to Reen.
“The challenge is to improve outcomes for students while spending less money than we are this current fiscal year,” Reen said. “We can’t achieve that by maintaining staffing, and by operating the same way with fewer resources.”
District officials said the depth of the proposed cuts is being driven by such factors as:
•  Overall student enrollment within MAUSD is expected to decline from the current 1,421 to 1,399 next fall — a number that could change depending on new families who might move in or out of the district this summer. That enrollment is projected to dip to 1,380 by fiscal year 2021 before rebounding to 1,403 in fiscal year 2022.
Each student represents around $16,000, according to Reen.
•  The district was able to apply around $600,000 in surplus to stabilize property taxes during the current academic year. That one-time money is not available for next year.
•  The state of Vermont increased the statewide education property tax rate by around 9 cents, which of course has to be absorbed by local property taxpayers.
MAUHSD is fortunately receiving an 8-cent break in its education property tax rate this year as a reward for consolidating its school district under Act 46. This will help mitigate the impact of the bump in the statewide rate. But that reward will decline by 2 cents annually until it is phased out in 2022-2023 budget year.
•  Teachers and school directors last summer inked a new labor contract that guarantees 3 percent new money both this year and next year for educator salaries. This doesn’t mean all teachers will get a 3-percent annual raise; it means the overall cost of salaries will rise by 3 percent.
District officials last week released some estimated homestead education property tax rates based on the first draft of the MAUSD budget and the latest state aid to education information. Bristol’s current rate of $1.7508 would decline ever so slightly to $1.7507. Lincoln’s would drop from $1.5686 to $1.4547. Monkton’s would drop from $1.8713 to $1.5617. New Haven’s would decline from $1.5767 to $1.6225. And Starksboro’s would drop from $1.6137 to $1.5848.
The disparate education tax rates among towns in the now-unified district are a product of the Common Level of Appraisal. The CLA is an equalization ratio used to adjust the assessed value of property within a municipality to its estimated fair market value. Each municipality’s CLA is used to calculate its actual homestead and non-residential education property tax rates. Taxpayers in communities with current property values that deviate substantially from fair market (and that are consequently due for a reappraisal) are likely least happy with their projected education tax rates.
Reen fielded a lot of questions during the Jan. 3 meeting, and the MAUSD board heard much feedback on the draft spending plan — particularly about the proposed instructional coaching positions.
These coaches, according to Reen, would become part of a support system for  school leaders, teachers, interventionists and students, assisting particularly in the areas of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), the humanities, and students’ social and emotional development.
“The intent is to provide that embedded, ongoing professional development to help folks continue to move along and continue to move along that continuum of implementation and best practices,” Reen said.
“Ongoing, embedded professional development over the course of years transforms instruction.”
Reen cited Champlain Valley Union High School as an example of a Vermont school system that has successfully integrated instructional coaching into its programming. He added the Addison Central School District successfully employed such a coach to revitalize its math program.
MAUSD officials believe the staffing re-design that is being driven by the cuts is presenting the district with an opportunity to provide education differently, and perhaps more effectively, at a reduced cost that is being demanded by local taxpayers and state government.
“We need to reimagine the way we serve students,” Reen said. “We certainly can’t keep doing the same kind of work with fewer resources and think that that’s the way to improve outcomes for students.”
“I also think the new MAUSD will emerge strong from this and prepared to improve outcomes.”
Not everyone is on board with the new course being charted by district leaders.
Tom Learmonth is a veteran Mount Abraham Union High School teacher and a representative of the Addison Northeast Education Association teachers’ union. He told Reen and MAUSD board members that the planned cuts would reduce the effectiveness of teachers.
“We believe that eliminating the 16 support staff positions is going to have a negative effect on student outcomes,” Learmonth said. “Struggling students require more time in direct education and direct instruction. Classroom teachers, we feel, already have great skills in dealing with students who struggle, but they don’t always have the time to do the often-individualized instruction.”
Learmonth isn’t yet sold on the new learning coaches.
“Currently, we don’t have enough confidence that adding coordinators, coaches and interventionists can make up the time with the students that is currently being supplied by support staff,” he said.
Support staff, according to Learmonth, are able to forge lasting bonds with underperforming and/or troubled students that he believes can’t be successfully replicated through the proposed coaching positions.
Brenda Tillberg, who has taught chemistry at Mount Abe for around four decades, voiced concern about the loss of six teachers.
“All of these (positions) are working directly with students in the classroom,” Tillberg said.
She believes eliminating six teachers and then adding an equal number of instructional coaches is not the way to go.
“I have found it’s the teachers in the classroom, or the assistants who are helping you, who make the difference,” Tillberg said. “The people who are peripheral to this do not have the direct effect on improving the students’ education.”
Adding to MAUSD officials’ desire to stabilize school spending is the fact that five-town voters in March are likely to field a whittled-down bond request for major renovations at Mount Abraham Union High School. The high school board is scheduled to meet on Jan. 10 to consider a $29.5 million plan that would be decided on Town Meeting Day. A more ambitious, $35 million bond failed by a 1,261 to 1,168 tally this past November.
District officials said debt service on the bond wouldn’t begin until fiscal year 2020.
“The building at this point can’t afford to have repairs put off any longer,” Reen said.
The MAUSD board is scheduled to hold another budget meeting on Jan. 17, followed by a gathering on Jan. 23 to potentially finalize the spending plan for the Town Meeting Day warning.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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