VERGENNES — The Vergennes Union High School board on Monday moved to adopt a new spending plan, which would bring spending below the current level and cut the equivalent of five full-time staff positions. It was a move board members said was necessary to rein in costs after voters rejected their first proposal by more than 200 votes on March 4.
Board member Neil Kamman said this budget is the most difficult he has ever worked on, but he supported cutting staff.
“It make me heartsick to do this, but I’m going to have to vote for this,” Kamman said. “I truly believe it’s the only way we can get past next year and get on even footing.”
Faculty at Monday’s meeting offered a different perspective on reducing the school’s staff.
“You’re asking us to throw five of our colleagues under the bus to cut what we’re doing here to make our jobs harder,” teacher Steve Orzech said. “They’re not going to support this, and I can’t in good conscience say that teachers will say ‘throw five of us out.’”
By a vote of 4-1, the board moved to accept a proposed budget of $9,417,197. That figure is $316,725 less than the proposed $9,733,922 budget voters shot down on Town Meeting Day.
That figure is also about $82,500 less than the current budget of roughly $9.5 million.
The school board plans to formally warn the new budget proposal at their next meeting on April 14, in order for the public to have time to review the new plan before a vote that could be scheduled later in April or early May.
The budget reduction will require the layoffs of five full-time equivalent positions, Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Tom O’Brien confirmed. At Monday’s meeting, VUHS Co-principal Stephanie Taylor said these cuts could come in the form of a library media specialist and a middle school transition literacy specialist, but did not speak specifically about where the other layoffs would come from.
In an interview Wednesday, O’Brien said he could not say who would be targeted for layoffs because administrators are still evaluating their options.
“It’s a moving target,” O’Brien said. “I don’t want to say, and then have it be different.”
The district’s contract with teachers mandates that ANwSU by April 15 must either offer new contracts or send reduction-in-force letters to faculty. O’Brien acknowledged that the district must decide on cuts to faculty by that deadline.
The board also unanimously agreed to use the new budget, if passed, to pay off all of the debt remaining from the 2013 fiscal year, which totals around $273,000. School officials said that debt is due to much higher than expected special education costs.
But despite the decrease in spending, ANwSU business manager Kathy Cannon estimated the school tax rate increase under the new budget proposal to be 14.34 percent over last year’s budget, down from an 18.53 percent increase in the first proposed budget.
A hike in the statewide property tax rate (now expected to be 4 cents) and higher per-pupil costs because of the school’s declining enrollment are increasing the rate, as is the extra debt load.
The board is also now looking at starting a $40,000 capital fund to help pay for future VUHS maintenance needs; a $50,000 proposal narrowly lost on Town Meeting Day.
“The new proposed rate … for fiscal year 2015 includes the full deficit, a reduced capital improvement fund appropriation of $40,000 and utilizes a base rate of $0.98,” Cannon wrote in an email.
Dozens of faculty and community members were on hand at Monday’s meeting at VUHS to weigh in on what the new budget proposal should look like. Debate, which was at times tense, stretched for nearly two and a half hours before board members adopted the new budget proposal.
At the beginning of the meeting, Cannon distributed two sheets of paper that detailed how a number of scenarios, from zero cuts to some $400,000 in cuts, would affect per pupil spending and the school tax rate.
Co-principal Ed Webbley said that making the most severe cuts being discussed, which would cut the budget by $400,000 and reduce the estimated tax rate increase to 9.87 percent, would be devastating.
“I’d like to point out that the $400,000 cuts are draconian. That cuts the heart out of what we can do,” Webbley said. “We’ll be severely handicapped in carrying out our (educational improvement plans), and we’ll be cutting drastically into community employment and the community liaison.”
Taylor discussed a budget cut of $210,804, which would eliminate 3.5 full-time equivalent positions. That budget would not reduce any school programming, but would result in a slight increase in class sizes, she said.
The motion the board adopted, which was made by Jeff Glassberg, went beyond the cuts Taylor advocated by more than $100,000, for the total reduction of $316,725.
During debate, board members said they heard from constituents that lowering the property tax rate is a paramount concern.
“I’ve tried to talk to people, and they’re more interested in the property tax rate than anything else,” board chairman Kurt Haigis said.
Board member Laurie Childers said that educating children in the community is a costly but necessary expense that saves money in the long run, when well-educated students contribute to society as adults. She was the only board member to vote against the new budget proposal.
“You put money in the front end, and get it out on the back end,” Childers said. “If we educate them well, they aren’t going to be on welfare, they’re going to be the business owners.”
Glassberg cautioned against not addressing the outstanding debt from 2013 in the new budget, noting that the school anticipates an additional deficit of $500,000 at the end of the current fiscal year.
“If we roll half of it forward, next year when we sit down to do this exercise we’ll be looking at a deficit in excess of $700,000,” Glassberg said. “All we’ll do is push the pain forward.”
Community member Tim Buskey said he agreed with Glassberg.
“We need to retire the deficit,” Buskey said. “We have a looming deficit next year, and we need to retire this thing.”
The board and community members briefly discussed making cuts to the Walden Project, but many said the program is too valuable an asset to the school to eliminate.
“A colleague said you can’t get rid of your seed corn,” Kamman said. “Those things are the Walden program; that’s money in the bank.”
Webbley said the Walden Project is becoming “more lean and agile.”
Resident Kristina MacKulin urged the board to find a middle ground on reducing the deficit and making cuts to faculty and programs.
“Once you start to hack away at programs, it will be a death sentence for this school,” MacKulin said. “Your decision today will impact students, and future students. What is going to be here in five to 10 years for the elementary school students?”
Parent Lou McLaren, who has two children in the district, said the school has improved immeasurably since she moved to the district 13 years ago.
“When I got here, the high school’s reputation wasn’t that strong,” McLaren said. “Over the last 13 years, I’ve watched the high school improve.”
McLaren said she would consider moving to a different town if $400,000 in cuts were made.
“That’s when I look to take my kid to CVU or to leave,” McLaren said. “I don’t feel like we should be cutting to the bone for a single-digit tax increase. It will come back to haunt us.”
Teacher Beth Adreon, who also has a child in the district, expressed a similar sentiment.
“My husband and I made a conscious effort to move to this district so my daughter could go here,” Adreon said. “I might have to send her somewhere else.”
Webbley said in the nine years he has worked in the district, the school has eliminated staff positions in tune with enrollment decline. Excessive cuts, he warned, would hurt the school in the future.
“If you did graph work on that, the number of faculty cuts is outstripping student decline,” Webbley said. “If you cut the whole enchilada, you’re doing it based on faulty metrics, and you’re probably going to be hurting our kids and our programs.”
Webbley spoke one final time before the board voted on a motion to support the more than $300,000 in cuts. He argued that the school board, administration and community need to fundamentally alter how they discuss school budgets, as simply making decisions based on the student-teacher ratio is antiquated.
“We’ll lose every budget the next 10 years if we don’t change the language about school budgets,” Webbley said. “If we continue to talk about funding schools based on student-teacher ratios alone, we are spiraling towards being obsolete.”
Webbley said the governor and Legislature have failed to adequately fund education needs in the state, and that it will be difficult for VUHS to accomplish its educational goals with fewer teachers next year.
“It’s going to be a lot harder without those five people,” Webbley said. “I just want to make a commitment to re-educate the public on what we know now, because it is nothing close to how we educated in the 1960s.”
After approving the motion, board members said it is important to articulate to voters that the new proposed budget is the best possible plan for funding the school next year.
“Whatever we agree to in this room, we have to spread the word,” Haigis said. “I think the compromise we come to has to be disseminated to everyone.”
Haigis declined to comment for this story, and referred all questions to O’Brien.
Kamman said the board must demonstrate to the public that the budget process has been an open and deliberative one.
“If citizens see a forthright effort to cut the deficit, transparency and a forthright effort to account for declining enrollment, that’s a reasonable ask of the citizens,” Kamman said.
Glassberg said the board needs to be cautious with the rhetoric it uses to sell the budget to the public.
“There’s not a member serving here who has an interest in denigrating the quality of what goes on here, or the reputation of the school,” Glassberg said. “We have to be careful about the language that is used so we are not our own worst enemy.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Laurie Childers as Larie Gutowski. The Independent regrets this error.