May 31, 2007
By ANDY KIRKALDY
VERGENNES — In a special meeting held on May 22 the Vergennes Union High School board voted against two administrators’ recommendation and preserved the school’s German language program in a decision that may be a preview of future difficult choices that lie ahead at VUHS.
About 25 citizens and staff members came to the meeting to support the German program, which Principal Ed Webbley and Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Thomas O’Brien had said should be phased out over the next three years after the retirement of longtime teacher Joy Minns, who will step down at the end of this school year.
O’Brien said he was disappointed by the board’s decision given the school’s scheduling and funding problems, one of many tough calls he said the VUHS board may have to make in the next six years, when enrollment is estimated to decrease by as much as 20 percent.
But he said he understood both the passion of the supporters of a program that now serves about 100 of the high school’s 450 students in grades 9 through 12, and the board’s reluctance to act on his and Webbley’s proposal.
“They (board members) felt like that they weren’t well enough prepared to have given due consideration to my recommendation,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien made the proposal because he believes cuts are necessary, and that because this cut would not mean letting go a teacher it made sense.
“The board is gong to be faced with some difficult decisions over the next few years. It seemed to me this was a no-brainer,” he said.
But the vote in favor of retaining the program was 4-1. Chairwoman Kristin Bristow did not vote, and both she and O’Brien said the decision more than anything highlighted the dilemma that lies ahead for VUHS.
Funding is certainly an issue because of the loose spending cap approved by the legislature that will take effect in 2010; because state funding is granted on a per-pupil basis, a problem given the school’s dropping enrollment; and because taxes are rising in ANwSU towns— sharply in Vergennes after a recent reappraisal.
Bristow said it is not likely that VUHS can continue to present as many courses as it does now.
“You’ve got lots of programs, lots of offerings for a small school,” she said. “We have to start making some decisions as to what we can continue to offer.”
Both Bristow and O’Brien said there is more to the question than finances, however. VUHS has struggled in recent years to adjust its block schedule to accommodate students and courses, and officials agree wrinkles remain despite Webbley’s focus on ironing them out.
“We’ve tweaked the schedule for three years now,” Bristow said, “and every year it’s very difficult to make the majority of people happy.”
Bristow said it is time for a comprehensive look at what courses the school offers and how it offers them as well as what it can afford to offer.
“Within the next year we will start looking at how can we make this work better, and it may involve some very tough decisions as to what programs we can support, either fund-wise or schedule-wise,” she said.
O’Brien said he will recommend what will be essentially a blank-slate approach. He believes instead of looking at what should be cut the board should start by evaluating what must be kept and then seeing what else can be retained to ensure a varied menu for students.
“I want to develop a plan with them that pretty much outlines what we’re required to do by state law and school quality standards, and by what we’d like to see our kids prepared to do so that they have some options when they leave here, and then there’s going to be some room in there to have some additional pieces,” O’Brien said.
Bristow said the decisions may be challenging, but the dilemma is basic.
“How many things can we have in a realistic schedule?” she said. “We do have a big chore ahead of us.”