VERGENNES — When Addison Northwest Supervisory Union school board members sit down this month and look at second or third preliminary drafts for 2010-2011 school budgets, ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien said they should be prepared to make some tough decisions.
O’Brien said in an interview last week a number of factors could work against voter approval of even modest ANwSU budgets this winter, including declining enrollments in three of its four schools, a projected 2.2-cent increase in the statewide school tax, and the continuing economic slump.
He will ask board members to consider what is truly essential to maintain.
“We’re going to have to make changes to sustain what’s important. We’re going to have to give up some things,” O’Brien said.
ANwSU and Vergennes Union High School board member Kristin Bristow said she would reserve judgment until the VUHS board meets on Dec. 14 and she gets a better look at the numbers.
At this point, VUHS board members are looking at what ANwSU business manager Kathy Cannon called a “very preliminary” budget with a 1.5 percent increase in spending in fiscal year 2011 to about $9 million. Because of declining enrolment at VUHS — there are 30 fewer students there this year, 593, than a year ago — even that spending increase could trigger a state law that would require a double budget vote next spring because the school’s per-pupil spending would rise.
Bristow acknowledged that she, like O’Brien, would like to avoid presenting two-vote budgets, but she said her decision might depend on the nature of the programs at stake and the amount of money involved, for example.
“At this point we’ve had that discussion in a very general sense,” she said. “We’ll know more after that ( Dec. 14 meeting).”
Last year, O’Brien said Department of Education officials and members of Gov. Jim Douglas’ administration expected more budgets to be defeated, but were surprised at the level of support residents expressed for their schools in passing spending plans.
O’Brien said he believes the prospects may be less rosy for budget votes this spring, especially double votes.
“I don’t have that confidence today,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with the economy.”
Here’s how the two-vote law works: If a school district proposes a budget over a state-allowed threshold, the school must put before voters two budget articles. The first asks for approval of spending up to the allowable threshold, and the second asks for approval of the spending the state deems to be excessive.
As well as voters with less money and job security, fewer students is the other central problem, O’Brien said. State funding for local education is based on the number of students in schools, so falling enrollment means less state aid. At the same time school districts are penalized when tax rates are calculated if their per-pupil spending is high.
Therefore, when a school loses students its revenue drops at the same time its host community can face tax penalties.
“It’s a tough nut to crack,” O’Brien said.
State officials have recognized the problem on a statewide basis. In a Nov. 10 memo to all local superintendents, principals and school board members, Vermont Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca and Commissioner of Finance and Management Jim Reardon painted a stark picture in recommending local spending restraint.
“Without such constraint, state property taxes will rise to unacceptable levels and school district budgets may be rejected much more broadly than we have experienced in recent memory,” they wrote.
They said they may propose to the Legislature a series of changes to help control school costs, including giving the education commissioner more power to consolidate schools and districts; phasing out small school grants (Addison Central School currently receives about $50,000 from this program); changing special education and enrollment decline thresholds to put more of a burden on local districts; and changing laws that govern teachers’ retirement and health benefits.
Within ANwSU, the town of Addison may face the most difficult challenge. The ACS board will meet at 7 p.m. on Dec. 17 to discuss a preliminary proposal that would increase spending by 0.9 percent to about $1.9 million.
But the school, which once had as many as 140 students, has just 106 this fall, down from 112 a year ago.
The per-pupil spending could rise to almost $17,000 at ACS this coming year, according to rough estimates provided by Cannon, far higher than the state average of $12,400.
Not only could Addison face a double vote, but also a dollar-for-dollar penalty for excess spending, ANwSU officials said. The loss of Small School funding would make the problem worse.
O’Brien noted that the proposed one-board unification now being considered by the five ANwSU towns would solve Addison’s per-pupil issues, but that in the meantime the ACS board would have to take a hard look at spending.
The Ferrisburgh Central School board is the only one eyeing a significant spending increase. When the board gathers on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. it will review another very preliminary spending plan that calls for an overall spending hike of 7.61 percent to about $3.08 million.
Payments on the bond for this past summer’s $1.5 million upgrade to the school alone would boost spending by 3.5 percent. All other increases being contemplated would up the budget by 4.11 percent.
It’s unclear whether Ferrisburgh would face two votes. Bond spending is not included in the calculation for that, and unlike other ANwSU schools, FCS enrolment increased by seven students from a year ago, to 208.
The Vergennes Union Elementary School board will meet on Dec. 15 at 5:30 p.m. to look over a preliminary budget that will not raise spending from its current $3.54 million level, at least on an apples-to-apples basis. No increases are proposed.
However, residents of Vergennes, Panton and Waltham earlier this year voted to eliminate their ID boards, which had small budgets that paid for transportation and preschool education programs.
That spending will be transferred to the VUES budget, Cannon said, and will result in one spending plan that will appear larger than the current level as the other three budgets vanish.
But even in a level-funded budget like that at VUES, O’Brien will urge board members to think hard now about what will be sustainable in the long term.
“We’ve reached that tipping point. It’s not a matter of if were going to do it, it’s a matter of how much, and it’s not a matter of how soon. Soon is here,” he said.
And, with state officials making noise about consolidating schools on their terms, he urged ANwSU residents to think about the long-term benefits of unification on their own.
“If we don’t take the actions now, they are going to be taken for us,” O’Brien said.