By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Union District-3 school board members are hoping the next two weeks will yield some good financial news that would allow them to keep the middle school’s living arts program from being cut from the proposed 2009-2010 spending plan.
The Middlebury Union Middle School (MUMS) living arts program and its teacher, along with a currently vacant paraprofessional post, are the chief casualties reflected in a proposed UD-3 spending plan of $15,548,526, a draft representing a 3.52-percent increase compared to the current spending plan.
“These are very frustrating times,” UD-3 board Chairman Tom Beyer told a packed crowd of teachers, parents and students at a Tuesday budget meeting that ran six hours.
“There is an enormous uncertainty for everyone,” he said, noting the tough economy. “What we are looking for now is how to share the burden.”
PRESSURE ON BUDGETS
Officials noted the proposed budget increase is actually a lot smaller than 3.52 percent when one realizes that it is artificially inflated by the effect of a state law (Act 130) that requires supervisory unions to more accurately reflect shared expenses between secondary and elementary schools. Currently, transportation expenses within the Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) have been accounted for primarily in the budgets of the seven member elementary schools. The UD-3 budget has merely reflected the costs of busing the students from the elementary schools to MUMS and Middlebury Union High School. The 2009-2010 UD-3 spending plan is therefore being asked to assume a $280,000 increase in transportation budgeting away from the elementary schools. That $280,000 represents a full 1.9 percent of the proposed $15.5 million proposed UD-3 budget, or more than half of the proposed 3.53-percent increase.
It should be noted that taxpayers will see a corresponding decrease in their respective elementary school transportation budgets.
District officials also pointed to two other state laws that are placing pressure on the UD-3 budget.
Under Act 68, school districts face a financial penalty if their expenditures are more than 125 percent of the state average per-pupil expenditure. Though the state has yet to provide up-to-date figures for calculating this year’s penalty threshold, UD-3 officials have tentatively calculated the district’s 2009-2010 budget must stay below $15,617,398 to avoid running afoul of Act 68.
Meanwhile, Act 82 (which takes effect for the first time this year) sets a “maximum inflation amount” for increases in school budgets. School budgets that exceed that state-set inflation amount must hold two votes on school budgets — one for the amount that reflects last year’s budget plus inflation, and another for any amount above that. UD-3 officials originally estimated the district budget would have to stay below $15,560,599 — based on a projected 3.8-percent inflationary rate — in order avoid triggering a second vote under Act 82. But state officials recently announced a 2.9-percent inflation rate, which forced UD-3 administrators to lower the budget target to $15,448,978. ACSU Superintendent Lee Sease has recommended the school board apply around $100,000 in surplus money from last year to help bridge that Act 82 gap, resulting in the proposed UD-3 budget of $15,548,526 school directors reviewed last night.
It was a grueling review, one punctuated by impassioned pleas to save the MUMS living arts program that costs $88,000. Living arts teacher Rebecca Day was among those appealing to the school board to save the program, which is taken by all seventh- and eighth-grade students.
Living arts, Day explained, is a course that has evolved into a program offering children valuable information on good nutrition, fitness and behavior designed to promote good health at a time when many middle-schoolers are dealing with body image issues, childhood obesity and a sedentary lifestyle dominated by TV and video games.
“It supports the middle school philosophy of the development of the ‘whole child’ — social, physical and academic proficiency,” said Day, who also presented the UD-3 board with a petition some of her students had circulated on her behalf.
Helen Anderson, a paraprofessional at MUMS, said cutting the living arts program would be cut nutritional knowledge “at a critical time in (these students’) lives.”
Steve Hare, owner of Vermont Sun & Fitness, also spoke in favor of the program as a way of instilling good health habits in children.
“The pressures our kids are under these days with fast food and TV are phenomenal,” Hare said. “I implore you to find some other place to cut.”
Other folks at Tuesday’s meeting pointed to other parts of the budget they believed deserved scrutiny instead of living arts.
Elizabeth Christensen of Shoreham noted the MUHS athletics budget is in line for a 5.68-percent increase next year. She added spending on high school athletics has gone up more than 71 percent during the past seven years, an amount Christensen believes is unduly high compared to other departments.
“It’s absolutely appalling,” said Christensen, who urged the board to level-fund athletics next year. “There are no other budget areas where we would allow this to happen.”
School officials acknowledged the increase over the years, but noted every time they have suggested cutting a sport, boosters of that sport — such as ice hockey — have lobbied for its retention and in some cases have raised funds independently to keep it going.
UD-3 board member Leonard Barrett of Bridport said athletics have been valuable in keeping some students in school and adhering to higher standards than their peers in order to stay on teams.
“They really support athletics in this community,” Barrett said.
Frankie Dunleavy, the teacher representative to the UD-3 board, said she was concerned the administration was recommending eliminating the living arts position while at the same time boosting the MUMS assistant principal’s position to reflect new responsibilities and qualifications. The salary line under “principal’s office” in the MUMS budget is pegged to go up by 9.23 percent (to $165,223).
TEACHERS PROPOSE CUTS
Meanwhile, the Middlebury Educators’ Association (MEA), the local teachers’ union, presented UD-3 board members with a letter and menu of other potential budget cuts and/or revenue it believes could save the living arts position. That list, which MEA President Tim O’Leary said was assembled with input from faculty members, includes:
• Negotiating with the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center board to free UD-3 from the current $30,000 in annual rent it pays the center to host the district’s Diversified Occupations program. O’Leary noted the PHCC currently pays UD-3 $1 per year for use of the PHCC main building and adjacent storage buildings. O’Leary is proposing an even trade that would allow each entity free tenancy.
• Expanding the district’s voluntary early retirement program by offering a second option that O’Leary believes would be accepted by at least two current faculty members, thereby saving more than $20,000 per year.
• Eliminating an 80-percent assistant principal position at MUMS, for a potential savings of more than $70,000 annually. O’Leary contends there are currently a combined total of 18 administrative positions serving approximately 950 students within the MUMS and MUHS campuses.
• Using Superintendent Lee Sease, rather than an attorney, to negotiate a new pact with UD-3 teachers, for an estimated savings of more than $10,000 for the district.
• Eliminating middle school traveling teams in sports, instead focusing on intramural activities, for an estimated savings of $40,000 — primarily in transportation expenses.
“With only one (full-time teaching position) proposed to be cut from next year’s budget, the MEA is sure there are other avenues to explore in order to continue funding the living arts position and current programming offered to MUMS’ students,” reads O’Leary’s letter.
The UD-3 board and administration on Tuesday did not discuss the MEA’s suggested menu of cuts, but promised to respond at a later date.
MUMS Principal Inga Duktig acknowledged residents’ concerns about the potential loss of the living arts post, saying it was a difficult recommendation to make. But with personnel costs amounting to 66 percent of the MUMS budget and the need to find $114,000 to trim, there was nowhere else to turn except to “look at programs and people,” she said.
“There isn’t anything that has been said about living arts with which I would disagree,” Duktig told the crowd.
“My recommendation is not at all based on the quality of work Ms. Day has done or the quality of the program.”
MUHS Principal William Lawson served notice that more program and personnel cuts are likely to be recommended during the next few years — not only because of the economy, but due to declining enrollment.
There are currently 674 students at MUHS, a number that is projected to drop to around 650 next year and perhaps as few as 633 students by 2011-2012. Similarly, the MUMS student population of 299 today may drop to approximately 250 within the next three years, according to Lawson.
With smaller numbers, the two schools may not be able to carry the impressive range of subjects and extra-curricular offerings they have.
“We are going to have to understand that positions are going to have to go, at some point,” Lawson said.
School directors are expected to make a final decision on the budget at their next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 16, at 5 p.m. at MUMS. In the meantime, the UD-3 board hopes to get more refined budget numbers from the state as well as from administrators. The board also wants to avoid triggering Act 82 and having to present voters with two budget proposals on Town Meeting Day next March.
Beyer said he believes Tuesday’s meeting was an important first step in getting a budget that the school district and the community can live with.
“It is, and will continue to be, a challenging year in which we will need to work hard to convince voters of the responsible nature of our budget,” Beyer said on Wednesday. “Last evening was characterized by openness, transparency, and ample opportunity for community input. I applaud the process and the unprecedented participation. It was a first step toward that goal.”