VERGENNES — In a packed high school library that has become characteristic of recent board meetings, the Vergennes Union High School board on Monday evening warned a new budget that will force administrators to lay off staff.
The spending proposal totals $9,417,197, which is $316,725 less than the budget Addison Northwest Supervisory Union voters rejected on Town Meeting Day. It is also less than the budget for the current fiscal year.
District officials 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 original proposed budget.
A motion made by board member Laurie Childers to lessen the cuts and increase the budget to $9.5 million was not seconded.
Residents in the five ANwSU towns will vote on the spending proposal on May 13.
Only four of seven board members were initially present at the meeting: Childers, Chairman Kurt Haigis, Neil Kamman and Chris Cousineau. Jeff Glassberg arrived around 8:15 p.m. Dozens of faculty, staff, parents and community members crowded the high school library.
The board had asked district administrators to calculate what staff reductions a $316,000 budget cut would necessitate.
Co-principal Stephanie Taylor outlined the cuts, which accounted for job positions in increments of full-time equivalent staff, or FTEs. They were: a 1.0 FTE in social studies, 1.0 in physical education, 0.4 in high school science, 0.4 in Spanish language, and 0.2 in French language.
The school would also shed three paraeducators. Taylor said this would offset spending at VUHS and other schools, since special education is administered at the district level.
In addition, Taylor said the cuts would include a 0.5 reduction in the library media specialist, and a 1.4 reduction in the middle school literacy interventionists. This 1.4 reduction would cut two jobs — one person who holds a 0.6 FTE position and one who has a 0.8 position.
These staff cuts, Taylor estimated, would save the school between $313,000 and $316,000.
Debate on the budget dominated the meeting, which stretched nearly three and a half hours (as a frame of reference, the Baltimore Orioles needed just 2:46 to dispatch the Tampa Bay Rays the same evening).
Some members of the public at the meeting supported the budget figure, but not where the cuts were coming from. Others said the cuts were too deep, while still others worried that voters in the district not present would see the cuts as not enough.
The reductions to the language teachers will affect French teacher Matt DeBlois and Spanish teacher Kristine Kirkaldy. Both have been awarded $100,000 grants from the Rowland Foundation, a nonprofit that funds professional development of Vermont secondary school educators and the projects they design.
Kamman said he wanted to make sure the district would not lose the grant funding secured by DeBlois and Kirkaldy if their hours were cut.
“If individuals associated with grants are willing to stay and work at 0.8, could they retain that grant and continue to bring money into the school?” Kamman asked.
Taylor said it was her understanding that the grants are attached to the teacher awarded the grant, called the grant administrator. This means that the grant funds follow the teacher from school to school.
Kirkaldy, who has worked to bring grants into VUHS, told the board that reducing hours for faculty would have an adverse impact on future grants for the school.
“If a teacher has been reduced to working that schedule, I believe there would be less time in the schedule to be doing grant work,” Kirkaldy said. “Over the past eight years, I’ve brought $300,000 into this school. It’s hard work and takes a lot of your time.”
EFFECTS ON EDUCATON
Parents and community members expressed concern about how the staff cuts would affect the quality of education at VUHS.
When a resident asked Co-principal Ed Webbley if cuts to the science program would diminish the education of students, Webbley said that any cuts would hurt the school.
“There’s a reason they call them cuts, because they hurt,” Webbley said. “Of course it will affect the quality of the science program.”
Webbley added that he believed it is important for both administrators and the board to be clear about how the proposed cuts will affect the education of students.
“You have to tell the truth, that these things are all painful,” Webbley said.
Superintendent Tom O’Brien said the top priority in drafting a new budget should be calculating a figure that taxpayers are willing to support.
“What’s at issue here is what the community is willing to pay,” O’Brien said. “It is not the quality of the of the programs.”
At a March 31 meeting, board members said they did not want to cut the Walden Project, an alternative education program. At Monday’s meeting, student board representative Tom Hodsden questioned the board on whether it would pare back the Walden Project.
“I’m not thrilled with the cuts; I know we’re in a tight spot — but have we looked at Walden?” Hodsden asked.
Webbley said the administration originally proposed it.
“We’ve been able to cut it slightly,” Taylor said. “We have not revisited it again, because of the response to the first budget iteration.”
Kamman said cutting the Walden Project would be a bad idea.
“If the Walden people were cut, it would move more senior staff into the building and bump other staff,” Kamman said. “We would be losing part of our seed corn, and losing our staff.”
Haigis said the board has not discussed in-depth the possibility of cuts to the Walden Project, because during the original budget negotiations before Town Meeting Day, the board passed a motion to not consider Walden during that process.
The budget for the Walden program is about $180,000.
BEARING THE BLAME
Residents and faculty raised concerns about who is ultimately to blame for how the $316,000 budget cuts are translated into staff reductions.
Glassberg said the board does not and has not told district administrators how to make cuts to staff.
“It is not the board’s decision with respect to any personnel issues,” Glassberg said. “We did not choose any positions and say those are the ones to go.”
Staff member Jay Stetzel took issue with Glassberg’s statement.
“I am concerned about the board washing their hands of the decisions to cut people,” Stetzel said. “Really, it’s coming down from the dollar amount you’re putting out, and it’s forcing (administrators) to do that. You can’t just wash your hands of that.”
Staff member Beth Adreon expressed a similar sentiment.
“It seems like a mixed message from the board,” Adreon said.
Kirkaldy said she believes the board should take responsibility for the staff cuts.
“I’d like you to own that you have made a decision personnel-wise,” Kirkaldy said.
MOTION TO AMEND FAILS
During the portion of the meeting set aside to warn a new budget, Laurie Childers introduced a motion to amend the budget to total $9,523,118, a figure $210,804 higher than the board had approved at the previous meeting.
This higher budget amount would likely result in fewer staff reductions, but would also increase the tax burden on residents.
Childers said she believed the difference between her proposal and the one before the board was so miniscule that voters would approve either.
“We’re talking about a 16 percent tax increase down to 15 percent,” Childers said.
None of the other board members seconded Childers’ motion, killing it. Debate then began on the $9.4 million budget proposal.
Several residents urged their elected representatives to increase the budget to stave off some staff reductions, but the board would not be moved.
Kamman explained the budget process has been especially difficult this year because of a dichotomy in creating a great educational model and getting taxpayers to fund it.
“I feel like our opportunity to support this school year after year is balanced on the head of a pin,” Kamman said. “It’s balanced on the great work by everyone who works here, the narrative that schools spend too much money, in a general sense, and a very real understanding that taxpayers pay too much.”
Kamman added that he worried the budget would be rejected by voters if it were any higher than the current form.
Glassberg defended the budget proposal, which he introduced, and explained why he supported it.
“I made the motion two weeks ago, and I take responsibility for it,” Glassberg said. “We don’t need to be convinced about the quality of the school and the necessity to support your efforts. We need to put forth a budget that can pass.”
Like Kamman, Glassberg said another failed budget would set a bad precedent for VUHS.
“We cannot afford to go back out and lose,” Glassberg said. “We cannot establish a culture in which defeated school budgets become the norm.”
After all of the audience members who wished to comment did so, Haigis called for a vote on the motion to warn the new budget.
It passed by a vote of 4-1, with Childers dissenting.
The board then unanimously decided to schedule the vote for May 13, the same day residents in Ferrisburgh will vote on their elementary school budget.
Editor’s note: Kristine Kirkaldy is the wife of Andy Kirkaldy, a reporter at the Addison Independent.