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VUES eyes budget options

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December 31, 2007

By ANDY KIRKALDY

VERGENNES — The impending retirement of two Vergennes Union Elementary School teachers has given the school’s board a range of budget options as decision time looms in January.

When board members meet next month, their final proposal could call for a spending hike in the 2008-09 school year of as little as 0.7 percent or as much as 4.1 percent, depending on whether they decide to replace both, one or neither of the retiring teachers.

Officials said no final spending plan will call for new programs or personnel, although increases in energy costs and the price of health insurance are putting pressure on the bottom line, as are contracted raises that average about 4 percent for the school’s teachers and aides.

Principal Sandy Bassett said he and the school’s board members have been careful spenders during his eight-year tenure, during which VUES budgets have earned regular backing. 

“I think we always have been (careful),” Bassett said. “I think that’s why our budgets pass. The public knows we’re very responsible.”

The current year’s budget calls for spending roughly $3.4 million. The smallest increase being considered would boost spending by 0.7 percent to $3.422 million. That assumes neither teacher — one of those retiring teaches first grade, the other, fifth grade — is replaced,

If one teacher is replaced, spending would go to about $3.48 million, an increase of about 2.1 percent. If both are replaced spending would rise to about $3.54 million, an increase of about 4.1 percent.

Although there would be differing degrees of difficulty, Bassett said the school’s steady decline in enrollment means that it would be possible to juggle teaching assignments and make do without one or both teachers. There are now about 260 students, down from a high in the 1990s of almost 400.

“What I don’t want to do … is compromise the integrity of the program,” he said.

Addison Northwest Supervisory Union business manager Donna Corcoran said she believes board members may be leaning toward the middle course.

“My sense was that they felt that would meet the needs of the taxpayers and meet the needs of the school,” Corcoran said.

Bassett said he is not making a recommendation, but that the problem is complicated in the long run by the new state school-funding law that will by 2009 require an extra vote on the portions of school budgets that exceed the state average in per-pupil spending.

VUES is in good shape at this point, he said, but choosing a more expensive option could create a problem down the road if costs the board cannot control — an unexpected problem with the building, for example — crop up. 

“You don’t want to be in a position where you have to make massive reductions because you haven’t made reductions over time,” Bassett said. “I try to think in longer stretches of time.”

Both Bassett and Corcoran stressed there will be no surprises in what Vergennes, Panton and Waltham residents will vote on in March.

“There is nothing new or different in the budget,” Corcoran said.

Fuel costs, of course, are projected to rise. The budget projects an $11,500 increase from about $34,000 to $44,500.

Meanwhile, health insurance costs will go up by a not-to-exceed amount of 7 percent, but VUES is projected to see a drop in special education spending of about $68,000.

That savings will be largely offset by a $48,000 increase in the school’s ANwSU assessment. The issue there, Bassett said, is “huge cuts in title funds,” such as Medicaid, from the federal government.

Those funds support literacy teachers and school-based clinicians at ANwSU schools, and have been steadily declining every year, leaving local property taxes to foot more of the bill formerly supported by federal income taxation.

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