Early Mount Abe budget is up 1.8 percent
The public can be assured (special education) services will still be robust, and I would add services will continue to become more robust as our multi-tiered system of support continues to evolve and serve all students more effectively.
— Patrick Reen
BRISTOL — The Mount Abraham Unified School District Board this week will continure work on a budget for the coming school year that, in its current state, proposes roughly $31.5 million in spending. That represents an increase of $557,000, or 1.8 percent, over the current Fiscal Year 2020 budget, which passed by just 13 votes on Town Meeting Day this past March.
At a Dec. 10 school board meeting, Superintendent Patrick Reen emphasized that the spending plan is “far from anything set in stone.”
The board must adopt a final district-wide budget in January to put before voters in the five district towns in March. The MAUSD board will meet this Tuesday at 6 p.m. at New Haven’s Beeman Elementary School, and the budget will again be on the agenda.
At this past Tuesday’s meeting, Reen painstakingly educated about 20 district residents about what drives school spending. He showed one slide that indicated taxes could possibly increase by $60 per $100,000 of assessed value for district homeowners who pay on the value of their homes and not based on their incomes.
Reen repeatedly pointed out the preliminary nature of the numbers: “Emphasis on projected. I can’t emphasize that enough.”
There are several reasons for the continued uncertainty, but the largest is the district does not know exactly how many students it will have in the 2020-2021 school year — specifically how many “Equalized Pupils,” according to state calculations.
For example, students who are in high school, on Individual Education Plans, receive free or reduced-price lunches, or speak English as a second language are all counted differently. And simple enrollment also matters, Reen said.
Ultimately school districts are reimbursed by the state on a per-pupil basis; a difference of even one or two students adds up quickly, Reen said. Those final numbers will not be known until after district boards propose budgets, though estimates are steadily getting more accurate.
Another important wrinkle in budgeting: Residents of the five district towns — Starksboro, Monkton, New Haven, Lincoln and Bristol — are assessed a dollar-for-dollar tax penalty if their school district approves a budget that exceeds a state-imposed per-pupil spending threshold.
Reen said at last week’s meeting that Mount Abe district officials’ current best guess is that they need to make $677,000 of cuts from apples-to-apples staffing and/or programming levels to avoid the penalty. They took that number into account in reaching their draft $31.5 million budget.
“The $677,000 is the amount we anticipate we need to reduce our education spending (expenses minus revenue) from what it would otherwise be if we were to roll all programming, personnel and other expenses forward next year,” Reen clarified in an email to the Independent. “The $31.5 million is the total we estimate we can spend in order to reduce education spending by the $677,000.”
As an indication of how fluid the numbers that the board must deal with are, Reen said that officials earlier had worked with an estimate of $850,000 before new data came in.
At this past Tuesday’s meeting, Reen said district teachers are being offered incentive packages for early retirement. The district saves money if veteran teachers are replaced by newer teachers, who require lower salaries, or not replaced at all.
His presentation also pointed out that $677,000 equals a reduction of 8.5 teachers or other professional educators, 5.8 administrators, or 15 members of the district support staff, such as paraeducators, office workers or maintenance staff members.
In his email to the Independent Reen acknowledged there would be painful decisions ahead, in part because of the anticipated increase in the cost of providing health benefits to district employees, estimated to increase almost $462,000, or 12.9 percent. According to Independent calculations, about 11 percent of the MAUSD budget goes toward health benefits.
“While there are many more details to work out about precisely how many reductions we may need to make and where they would come from I think it is fair to say we anticipate the need to make staff reductions to hit the budget target,” he wrote. “I think it is also fair to say that increasing healthcare costs do make it more costly to employ people, which ultimately means we can afford to employ fewer people than we could if healthcare costs were not increasing.”
Despite the anticipated staff reductions, there are still projected increases in the overall “Instructional Program” ($498,000) and Student Support Services ($122,000) line items, as well as a boost to “Operations and Maintenance of Plant” ($170,000).”
The preliminary budget includes two significant line-item decreases: about $315,000 in reduced workers’ compensation and Health Reimbursement Accounts, cuts related to staff reductions, and another roughly $216,000 in lower special education costs. According to the handout that reduction is due to a “decrease in staffing.”
Reen in his email said the savings in special education are in fact about half of that amount due to lower reimbursement for services, and he said students’ needs will be met.
“We are projecting a reduction in expenses for special education, which includes people employed in MAUSD and includes costs for students placed in programs outside of MAUSD,” he said. “The public can be assured services will still be robust, and I would add services will continue to become more robust as our multi-tiered system of support continues to evolve and serve all students more effectively.”
That “multi-tiered system of support” came under fire from several residents during the meeting last week. Before the start of the 2018-2019 school year, the district hired coaches to work with district teachers to instill what Reen called “best practices” in all MAUSD classrooms.
Reen has maintained he believes that approach will improve education across the district, particularly in areas where it has lagged (as have a majority of Vermont districts), in improving performance among disadvantaged students. Those practices are designed to help more students succeed and not require extra, and often more expensive, intervention.
“Our goal is to have fewer students with need,” Reen said.
But some residents criticized the coaching system as unnecessary and counterproductive. They suggested funding for that could be cut or used instead to hire more educators or paraeducators.
Reen said he has started to see progress, although data is not yet available, and he expects more over the five-to-seven years he said any new program needs to fully take hold.
“It’s way better than it was at this time last year, and I have every reason to believe it will be even better a year from now,” he said.
Another resident said not everyone, but “a lot of people say it’s not working” now.
Again, Reen said it takes time, and that change was necessary after years of district data that showed no improvement in academic achievement in the district, while at the same time showing the “best practices” being introduced by the coaches could produce better results.
“I think there are feelings that it is worse for kids,” Reen said. “I haven’t seen data to support the feelings, and I know it will get better.”
Another resident wondered if cuts could be made at the administrative level, as had been suggested was possible during the MAUSD unification process.
Reen said there had been one modest part-time administration cut since consolidation, while the district has “seen some savings,” but he said in his opinion the larger reason for unification was to create “equity of opportunity.”
Reen also addressed questions about the cost and inefficiency of district transportation. He said the district is not technically obligated to provide busing, but doing so ensures that all students, not just those whose parents have the wherewithal to provide transport, can attend district schools. Reen called busing the “great equalizer.”
He added that buses are also not often full because the district insists that students not ride a bus for more than 45 minutes.
“We just have to have the inefficiencies, unfortunately,” he said.
Another resident wondered if it was wise to spend money on infrastructure projects at all the district schools if one or more could potentially close.
Reen answered he could not anticipate that any of the voters in a district town would agree to close their elementary school, and that he believed it was critical to ensure the safety and comfort of students and staff in each school.
“I have no idea if or when a school will close,” he said. “We have an obligation to … invest in our schools.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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