By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Voters in the seven towns that make up the Addison Central Supervisory Union school district on March 3 will cast ballots on a proposed UD-3 spending plan of $15,530,470 for the 2009-2010 academic year. The budge, which eliminates Middlebury Union Middle School’s (MUMS) living arts program, represents a 3.4 percent increase in spending over the current year.
The living arts program and its teacher ultimately became the casualties of Act 82, a new state law that requires school districts to hold two votes on their budgets if they exceed a state-prescribed inflationary threshold. The living arts program costs $88,000, an amount school administrators reluctantly recommended for paring in order to ensure the UD-3 budget would not trigger a second vote under Act 82.
“When we’re looking at the budget constraints we were facing this year, there was no way we could find those savings looking for $1,000 here or $1,000 there,” MUMS Principal Inga Duktig said. “It wasn’t an easy decision at all.”
A decision rendered even more difficult by another state law — Act 130, which requires that shared expenses be budgeted based on actual spending at elementary and secondary schools. That means UD-3 administrators have to reflect, in the 2009-2010 budget, around $280,000 in transportation costs that had previously been reflected in the supervisory union’s elementary school budgets. That accounting change is responsible for more than half of the 3.4 percent increase in the proposed UD-3 spending plan.
“It’s been a challenging budget for us,” ACSU Superintendent Lee Sease told the UD-3 board at a Tuesday evening meeting.
He added the 2009-2010 budget picture is likely not to get brighter in the near future. That’s because there is no more fund balance to apply to what is already a very conservative spending plan, according to Sease.
“Some of the places we’re pushing and some of the places we could have had cushions aren’t going to be there,” Sease warned.
Officials had hoped the financial news would get better in the two weeks since their last meeting, when the budget draft was first presented. But the news only got worse, Sease noted. For example, the district saw its vocational tuition rates and projected special education expenses rise.
All of a sudden, Sease explained, the UD-3 budget was looking at being more than $82,000 above the Act 82 threshold — even with the proposed elimination of the living arts program at MUMS.
That prompted UD-3 principals to take another look at their respective budgets for more savings, which they in part found at MUMS by reducing summer custodial hours by $4,200; decreasing summer curriculum work by $5,000; reducing the furniture budget by $2,000; and spending $5,000 less on computers. Officials also found an $8,000 error in the budget and found an additional $13,000 in potential revenues by continuing to allow out-of-district (fee paying) athletes to participate in the MUHS boys’ hockey program. Those revenues will depend on the UD-3 board and the Vermont Principals’ Association re-authorizing Middlebury Union High School’s continued participation in that “Member to Member” program.
That new round of cuts was not deep enough to save the living arts program, however. More than a dozen people urged the board to save the program when it was first considered for the chopping block earlier this month. A handful of people made some eleventh-hour pleas for the program on Tuesday.
Among them was Helyn Anderson, a paraprofessional at MUMS. She pointed to various national studies suggesting that the nutrition knowledge gained by students in living arts class is invaluable in helping young people stay healthy in a fast-food society. She added the investment in the class could pay dividends in future years because it would produce more knowledgeable, health-conscious citizens who would require fewer health care services.
Anderson also argued the school could not realistically fold the living arts material into the MUMS health and physical education classes.
“You put them together, it will be watered down to a point of being non-effectual,” Anderson said.
“Living arts, to me, is not combinable into the health program,” she added.
Whitney Barber, another MUMS paraprofessional, agreed with Anderson.
“I think with the growing obesity epidemic, it’s important to see where else a cut could be made,” she said.
The UD-3 teachers’ union, known as the Middlebury Educators’ Association, has suggested other cuts, such as trimming administrative staff at MUMS in light of the fact that its enrollment is projected to go below 300.
Elizabeth Christensen, chairwoman of the Shoreham school board, reiterated her call for the board to reduce the rate of increase for athletic programs. The MUHS athletics budget is in line for a 3.93-percent increase next year.
Supporters of the living arts program also argued that once such an offering is cut, it could be very hard — if not impossible — to ever bring it back.
“It breaks my heart to see an entire program go,” said MUHS teacher Frankie Dunleavy.
UD-3 board member Devin McLaughlin of Middlebury offered a motion to amend the budget to include the living arts program, thereby triggering a second vote under Act 82.
“I don’t like being captive to Act 82,” McLaughlin said.
“We have an option to let voters decide,” he added. “If we feel strongly enough about the program … at the minimum, let the community decide on whether they think living arts is important enough for them to want to vote in the second vote.”
Other board members disagreed, however, saying that the current economy called for them to make tough decisions before the spending plan makes it to the voters.
“I just think the times ahead of us are going to be very hard, and that this is just the beginning of what we’re going to look at in the next few years,” said UD-3 board member Marie Kireker of Weybridge. “I think we’re going to have to be very creative going forward. That’s our job, as board members, to endorse the tough decisions.”
Board member Peter Conlon of Cornwall agreed.
“I think if we set a precedent of every year when there is a hard decision we kind of throw it on as extra and let the voters decide… I’m not sure that’s the way this process is supposed to work,” Conlon said. “(The public) looks to us to make hard decisions and put out one proposal.”
Board members were virtually unanimous in their disdain for Act 82, a law set to sunset in 2014. Board member Jerry Shedd of Ripton said he would work to repeal the law before 2014, but in the meantime, he said it may not be prudent for the district to risk a two-vote budget.
“We are going into uncharted waters with this act,” Shedd said.
The board defeated McLaughlin’s proposed budget amendment by an 11-1 margin. They then voted unanimously for the budget recommended by school administrators.
UD-3 board Chairman Tom Beyer said the panel will soon need to turn its attention to “restructuring” the district’s schools in anticipating of even tougher reductions that will likely have to come with the current recession and dwindling enrollment numbers.
“It’s probably the only way to meet the challenges we are going to face in the coming years,” he said.