By ANDY KIRKALDY
VERGENNES — Facing a $224,000 deficit due to last winter’s soaring fuel bills and to trouble with the school’s heating and ventilation system, Vergennes Union High School officials slashed almost $200,000 of supplies, equipment and materials from a December draft budget in order to keep their proposed 2009-2010 spending increase at 4.9 percent.
At its Jan. 12 meeting, the VUHS board will consider and could still make changes to the resulting final draft, which calls for a roughly $400,000 hike to a proposed 2009-2010 spending plan of about $8.9 million.
That budget will not cross the spending threshold that would trigger a two-tiered budget vote under Vermont school finance law Act 82 that takes effect this spring, Addison Northwest Supervisory Union officials said.
VUHS Co-principal Ed Webbley said the school’s teachers worked hard to keep spending in line given the current budget deficit, which includes $135,000 in higher-than-expected fuel costs alone, with most of the rest attributable to repairs to the heating and ventilation system.
“We got pounded on the heating oil,” Webbley said in an interview this week.
He said earlier budget drafts already reflected a 15 percent decrease in supplies, field trips and materials for educational programs, and that most of the most recent round of $198,000 in cuts came from those areas.
Every department except English, which Webbley said received a $3,000 boost because of lagging reading and writing scores at the 11th grade level, saw further cuts.
“Everybody budgeted at 15 percent below this year’s budget for next year, except for two departments that budgeted flat, and those were English and science. And we ended up increasing English,” Webbley said. “We cut $121,249 just from instruction.”
Most of the remaining $400,000 increase is in a contracted raise for teachers, which averages about 4 percent. Webbley said staff pay makes up almost 80 percent of the VUHS budget.
Health insurance rose by a lower-than-usual 2 percent, an amount that Webbley estimated made a $30,000 impact on the budget.
Board members told administrators to preserve staffing levels, he said.
“They said go in and cut everything you can without cutting people, things that would impact kids,” Webbley said, adding, “We wanted to look at all the cuts we could make without cutting people or programs.”
In making the last rounds of cuts, officials were able to realize an estimated $52,000 savings in special education, $14,500 in maintenance, a little more than $17,000 in administrative costs, and several smaller cuts.
Within the larger, $121,249 instructional program cut was a $43,000 savings realized by finding a replacement for veteran agriculture teacher Harmon Boyce who required less in terms of salary and benefits. Boyce retired but had been filling in this academic year.
Webbley said other cuts to supplies, materials and field trips were not made lightly.
“Those are things we don’t really want to cut, but we don’t want to impact the core program,” he said.
Administrators believe they can preserve the quality of education at VUHS despite the recent round of cuts.
“The quality of our professionals here is so high that we can still provide the program to the kids that the kids need by maintaining people, by maintaining our staff,” Webbley said. “We think that they are highly professional. We think they have worked very hard over the last few years to make this into a great place to learn, so we made that decision to cut as many materials we could over cutting staff ... We would really lose a lot of momentum by cutting people and programs.”
Not only do VUHS and ANwSU administrators not want to lose the teachers they have by making staff cuts, but they also want to remain attractive in the marketplace for good young teachers.
“We are trying very hard to attract the best faculty we can here, and we have become much more competitive with Chittenden County,” Webbley said. “And so the last thing we want to do is send out the message we’re going to RIF (reduction in force, or let go) young teachers.”
VUHS is also taking another step to reign in the fuel-based deficit — what amounts to a spending freeze for the rest of the academic year.
“The charge to every person in this school is to find ways not to spend money in our projected budget for this school year. The most you could probably realize in savings is somewhere in $50,000 to $60,000, but if we could save that and not spend it, it would help our deficit situation for next year,” Webbley said. “It’s ugly, but we have to do it.”