Career Center eyes 11.4% budget hike


There’s nothing left in that fund (balance), so we have no money to return to the taxpayers for tax relief.
— Dana Peterson

MIDDLEBURY — A $171,500 rise in employee health insurance costs, the re-offering of a construction technology program and a commitment to once again make the assistant director’s job full-time are the major reasons for a proposed 2020-2021 Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center budget that’s 11.42% higher than this year’s spending plan.
“The budget has been prepared with a lot of care, effort and energy into looking at how we can deliver our programs to students,” said Superintendent Dana Peterson.
The $3,864,751 spending plan, if approved by voters in 17 Addison County towns on Town Meeting Day, would require a tuition rate of $25,503 per full-time-equivalent (FTE) student — a 15.38% increase. That proposed tuition rate is broken down into a state grant of $9,189 and a local share amount of $16,314 that is assessed to the three area high schools that send students to the career center: Mount Abraham, Vergennes and Middlebury union high schools. The sending districts’ assessments are based on the number of FTE students they send to the career center.
It should be noted many Career Center enrollees split their time between the center and their sending high school.
Career Center officials won’t have a clear picture on how many students they will serve next fall until Feb. 14, the enrollment deadline for its vocational and technical education courses. But it’s clear that numbers have been on the upswing, according to Peterson. The school is serving 100 more students (who attend part-time) than it served last year, he said.
“We have 147.83 FTEs this year … and we’re up by at least 25 FTEs,” Peterson said.
“Our programs are more fully subscribed than they were when I first arrived (in 2017); we had around 30% capacity, and that has been significantly reduced,” he added. “Some of our programs are over-subscribed. The number of students requires us to be able to maintain a certain level of funding.”
More students at a higher tuition rate means greater assessment charges to sending schools.

The proposed spending plan is rising by $396,414 from this year. Peterson said $171,500 of that increase is related to greater health insurance costs.
Of the $171,500 increase, $120,000 is related to a Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA) account used to pay the district’s share of employee deductibles. A recently negotiated, statewide pact has given employees access to health insurance plans with as much as a $5,000 deductible, according to Peterson. Paying the deductible would be split 84-16, with the employer (PHCC) responsible for $4,200 and the employee covering the remaining $800.
But the district will have to pay for its share of the deductible twice in the first year of the insurance plan — the 2020-2021 academic year, according to Peterson. That means that between July 1 and Dec. 31 of this year the career center will pay  its share of the deductible ($4,200 after the employee covers the initial $800); and then the district will pick up the initial $4,200 on deductible claims during the second half of the fiscal year, beginning Jan. 1.
“It means in one year, we’ll be picking up one-third more costs (on the HRA),” Peterson said. “So we’re getting a double-whammy on that.”
Another added health care expense for PHCC next year: Support staff will for the first time be offered a family plan option. This is expected to bump the health care budget by around $51,500, according to Peterson.
“We can’t negotiate that anymore,” Peterson said. “It needs to offered. And we already know there will be a couple of people picking up that option. We have had to build those costs in for next year.”
It is indeed a perfect storm in terms of health care expenses, according to Peterson.
“It’s unfortunate that we have more than a $170,000 in health care costs that aren’t necessarily related to student services,” he said. “It pays for our employees’ health care, including myself. But that’s a cost-driver we hopefully won’t have to have at that significant level in the future.”

The budget includes a $37,000 request to return the assistant director/dean of students job to full-time status. It was relegated to part-time a few years ago when Assistant Director Kelly Mills moved into a teaching spot following a retirement.
Mills has been devoting half her time to teaching and the other half to the assistant director’s job, whose duties include communicating with partner schools, providing student support, working with teachers on expectations, supporting the overall operations of the career center, and organizing events.
Peterson said Mills would like to teach fulltime. And career center officials want to return to a full-time assistant director.
“It’s too fragmented; there’s not enough centralization,” Peterson said of the post. “We want to make some changes and restore it to the way it was.”

The career center offered a construction technology program until it was cut around 15 years ago. But based on new demand, the center reintroduced the program this year. It currently has 14 students, but needs $49,000 in order to continue next year.
“We were able to absorb it into (this year’s) budget, and now we can’t,” Peterson said. “We need to build it into (the 2020-2021 budget).”
Enthusiasm for the program was apparent when Peterson joined the PHCC in 2017.
“Out of the first 30 people I met, 22 mentioned something about construction technology,” he recalled. “We actually did a community survey during February of (2018), and the overwhelming majority indicated that if we were offer to a program, it should be in construction technology.”
Local construction companies have been highly supportive and helpful, according to Peterson.
“We have many relationships with industry partners now,” he said. “They’re making recommendations. We actually sold one of our sheds that we designed and constructed with the help of some industry partners. We’re hoping for that to become a well-established part of our offerings to the community.”

The career center’s auditor has recommended an infusion of money ($25,000) into the center’s Building Equipment and Reserve Fund, or BERF, used for occasional capital improvements and equipment. The center has previously tapped fund balance for such purposes.
The career center has been able to use $40,000 in fund balance to reduce the tax-impact of the budget during each of the past four years.
That won’t be possible next year.
“Our fund balance will be under $7,000 for fiscal year 2019 because we’ve been using that to transfer to our health reserve account to pay those bills,” Peterson said. “There’s nothing left in that fund, so we have no money to return to the taxpayers for tax relief. That also drives up the per-pupil costs.”
The BERF can only take care of modest jobs. Peterson gave notice that the center will go public later this year on a major renovation plan for the PHCC’s Charles Avenue building.
“Some of our equipment and facilities are 50 years old; they’re well beyond their life expectancy,” he said. “Some of the folks we’ve been bringing in to look at it have said that we’re running on borrowed time.”
Peterson acknowledged the proposed budget increase is steep, but hopes area voters will understand the reasons behind it.
“It’s a well-conceived budget to address the needs that have been expressed to us in the community,” he said. “We hope all the taxpayers can support it.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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