Orwell to vote on lower school budget

ORWELL — Orwell voters will return to the polls on Tuesday, Aug. 11, to cast ballots on a reduced 2020–2021 K–12 spending plan for Slate Valley Unified Union District Schools (SVUUSD).
The SVUUSD board is expected to finalize a new budget number at its July 20 meeting. In the meantime, directors have scheduled a series of public meetings this Thursday, July 9, at 6 p.m., in the SVUUSD-member communities of Orwell, Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Fair Haven. The Orwell meeting will be held on the town green and will be led by Glen Cousineau, Peter Stone and John Wurzbacher.
Slate Valley is one of the few remaining school districts in Vermont that has yet to OK a fiscal year 2021 spending plan. District voters on Town Meeting Day rejected the original K–12 education budget of $26,623,041 by a 1,585 to 1,490 margin. Then they defeated it by a much wider, 812-550 tally on June 9.
The failed budget would have lowered the increase in spending per equalized pupil from the originally proposed 3.5%, to 2.99%, according to SVUUSD Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell.
School officials have posited two contributing factors to the June budget defeat.
They fear some voters have mistakenly linked the spending plan to an ill-fated, $59.5 million bond proposal that would have paid for extensive renovations to Fair Haven Union High School, a new “Slate Valley Middle School,” an 8,200-square-foot addition to the Orwell school, and a new, $842,066 elevator system at Fair Haven Grade School. That building project was soundly defeated earlier this year, and there are no plans at this point to revive it.
And they also noted the difficulty of trying to pass a $26.6 million budget during a COVID-19 pandemic that has wreaked economic havoc on many households and businesses.
Olsen-Farrell isn’t sure how deeply the SVUUSD board will choose to cut the budget request by July 20, but she pointed to a combined total of roughly $213,000 in reductions that are currently on the table. They include:
•  Eliminating one full-time equivalent (FTE) Special Educator post at FHUHS for a net savings of $39,350.
•  Cutting 1 FTE math/science teacher at FHUHS, for a net savings of $102,281.
“We had a science teacher at the high school move to the assistant principal position in Castleton,” she explained in an email. “We filled the science position at the high school with a teacher from one of the middle schools, which created an overall reduction in a teaching position and the administrators that were hired cost less than those that we had in place previously.”
•  Reduction of a 0.6 FTE student support post in Orwell, for a savings of $27,460.
“This was a new position that we chose not to fill,” she said.
•  A combined total of $25,000 in salary adjustments resulting from new hires.
“Teachers that were hired to replace elementary teachers that had resigned came in costing us less in comparison to what we originally budgeted,” she said.
•  The expectation of an additional $18,909 in cash on hand by the time the school year begins.
Olsen-Farrell is confident the $213,000 in cuts would still allow the SVUUSD to deliver good educational programs to students, but stressed “anything more would be extraordinarily concerning to me.”
Also concerning to Farrell are the looming costs of reopening schools to students following a semester of distance learning brought on by the pandemic. Some work stations will need Plexiglas shields. A bunch of new thermometers will be required to take students’ temperatures as they enter the schools. School buses will need monitors. And there may be a need to purchase additional laptops for any students who become sick and have to attend classes remotely.
“These are significant expenses we couldn’t have predicted,” Olsen-Farrell said.

Going into the June 9 vote, Slate Valley was one of 19 school districts statewide that had yet to endorse a 2020–2021 public education budget. SVUUSD officials want to change that on Aug. 11, so they’ll spend the next month passing out budget specifics. Board members also hope residents take advantage of the July 9 public meetings to register their educational and financial priorities for the district.
As of this writing, Olsen-Farrell had completed the first version of a “frequently asked questions” flyer about the district’s current financial condition.
Among the anticipated constituent questions:
•  Why can’t the SVUUSD close schools now?
Olsen-Farrell and her colleagues note some district residents have suggested school consolidations to drive down education costs. But that would be easier said than done. Slate Valley voters approved articles of agreement related to a school-governance merger in 2017. Those articles included a stipulation that no district schools could be closed during the first four years under unified governance. Thereafter, closing a school would require an endorsement of 75% or more of the school board, and a majority vote of the municipality in which the school is located.
•  Why can’t school staff be reduced now (summer of 2020)?
The school board is required by contract to give notice by March to district employees regarding potential layoffs. The period by which layoffs could be OK’d passed prior to the COVID-19 closures and budget revote.
“The board is looking carefully at each position that is vacated due to attrition and considering if we can (make) do without filling each position,” Olsen-Farrell said. “This is not possible in all of the cases.”
Click here for the full list of FAQs, which the district is likely to update before the Aug. 11 Australian ballot vote.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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