Merger of Whiting, Leicester Sudbury schools put to vote

BRANDON — The Otter Valley Unified Union School Board has approved a proposed 2018-19 school budget that would combine the district’s three small schools — Leicester Central, Whiting Elementary and Sudbury Country schools — and move the Caverly Preschool to Lothrop Elementary in Pittsford.
The proposed $19,223,835 spending plan, approved at a Jan. 10 meeting, represents a roughly $550,000 cut in spending, or 1.22 percent, from the current budget.
Residents in OVUU towns, including Leicester, Whiting, Goshen, Sudbury and Brandon, will vote on the budget, which encompasses the changes at the schools, on Town Meeting Day.
How did the school district get to this point? Finances and student enrollment.
On the financial front, OVUU, like other Vermont schools, saw the state prop up its 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, Superintendent Jeanne Collins explained.
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.
All of these factors led to a $1.6 million budget shortfall for the 2018-19 school budget and a projected 12 cent local tax hike. Originally, Superintendent Collins was tasked with finding $769,000 in cuts at the school board’s request.
An original proposal to merge Brandon’s Neshobe Elementary and Pittsford’s Lothrop Elementary was nixed based on pushback from parents and staff.
The proposed budget calls for Whiting Elementary School to become a preschool center, possibly partnered with a licensed childcare provider. A Whiting resident has also proposed moving the Whiting Town Library to the school building. Collins said the Whiting selectboard was receptive to the idea.
Sudbury and Leicester schools will split kindergarten-third grade at one school and grades four to six at the other, although a decision has not been made about which will host which grades.
“We want to talk with the teachers before we make that a decision about which grades will be where,” Collins said on Jan. 12, “sometime in the next few weeks.”
Wherever the grades fall, there will still be some small classes. Even with the merger, Collins said there are only nine fourth-grade students between the three schools next year.
The OVUU board also agreed that if this plan is approved by voters in March, no new action would be taken on the small schools for at least three years. Collins said she and the board are mindful that there has been some upheaval for students in Leicester, Whiting and Sudbury, following last year’s decision to merge Whiting and Sudbury, with Whiting hosting pre-K- grade 3 and Sudbury hosting grades 4-6.
The new plan saves $210,000 with a reduction of three teachers across the three small schools.
Because the OVUU school district was a merger of Rutland Northeast schools under Act 46, any student living within the district has the option of attending any of the elementary schools.
“This plan keeps the small schools open, affordable, and sustainable,” Collins said. “I do believe that merging the small schools creates better opportunities for students in small communities and allows us to maintain small schools as an option for all of our communities.”
The proposed budget also allows for Lothrop Elementary School in Pittsford to become a multi-age classroom school, thus combining two grade levels in one classroom under one teacher due to shrinking class sizes.
The multi-age plan at Lothrop, together with the merging of the three small schools, allows the district to share an art teacher and a nurse for a savings of $70,000.
Also, the Neshobe World Language teacher will teach Spanish to fifth- and sixth-grade students across the three schools next year. The multi-age plan at Lothrop will free up a classroom, and the OVUU Finance Committee suggested moving the Caverly Preschool, located in the woods behind the Pittsford Town Offices, to the elementary school.
“The regulations for pre-K have changed,” Collins said. “We need an administrator on-site 60 percent of the time.”
She said the board originally agreed to leave Caverly as-is during meetings over the summer, but then the preschool’s teacher and paraeducator both announced they were retiring.
Collins said having just two staff members and no administrator on-site at Caverly “is not the safest situation.”
“If something should happen, the principal is 10 minutes away,” she said.
All told, moving Caverly to Lothrop saves $20,000 in the proposed budget, Collins said.
There was a plan to reduce staffing at Otter Valley Union High School by 3.5 teachers through attrition, meaning those teachers were leaving or retiring and not being replaced. But with a projected increase in enrollment of 40 students at the OV middle school this fall, the OVUU Board requested adding back one full-time teacher in the middle school. How that teacher will be used has not been decided, Collins said.
OV and Neshobe Elementary will also see a reduction of one year-round clerical position, which will become a school day, school year-only position.
There is also a 3.5 reduction in staff in the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in special education, a reduction of a paraeducator at Neshobe, a reduction of a half-time administrator, reduction of a half-time clerical support, and reduction of debt service for a total additional cut of $425,000.
Due to a change in the yield at the state level, coupled with state-level decisions in the summer, the anticipated tax rate is up by 5 cents for the unified tax rate, or 3.5 percent — rates in individual towns will vary depending on their CLA, or Common Level of Appraisal ratio. But Collins said that if the state changes the anticipated yield, the tax rate can decrease (or increase) from the current estimates. Anticipated rates in OVUU towns range from a decrease of 9 cents to an increase of 7 cents, depending on the CLA of a community. The overall spending is down over 1 percent, and most taxes will see a minor rise or even a reduction.
If this district-wide spending plan is approved, Leicester and Whiting will see the highest tax increases.
“The board has done everything it possibly could to keep taxes low and provide comprehensive, quality programs for all of our students,” Collins said.

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