MIDDLEBURY — UD-3 school directors will meet on Dec. 18 in hopes of finalizing a 2014-2015 budget for Middlebury Union middle and high schools that currently reflects a 2.8-percent spending increase as well as 3.2 fewer educator positions at MUMS.
The board at its Dec. 3 gathering continued to anguish over potential cuts to a MUMS budget that will provide services to an estimated 256 students next fall — 42 fewer than are being served this year. A sizable majority of school directors have acknowledged that an ongoing trend of declining enrollment will force budget cuts at UD-3 schools, but they are evenly split on whether next year is the time to begin implementing those reductions. Case in point: The UD-3 board on Dec. 3 polled its members on support for the current $17,042,840 budget draft. Six members favored advancing that spending plan, while five were inclined to make changes.
Current projections call for MUMS enrollment to fluctuate from the current 298 students to 256 in 2014-15, then bump up to 273 in 2015-16 before leveling off in the 250-range in each of the ensuing three or four years.
As currently drafted, the 2014-15 MUMS budget reflects, among other things, a reduction of a social studies teacher and a science teacher, a 20-percent cut to a math teaching position, and one less special educator, who could be assimilated into the Addison Central Supervisory Union system. These staffing reductions would require elimination of either the Ohana, Mosaic, Paragon or Phoenix interdisciplinary student teams. This means MUMS would have three (instead of four) interdisciplinary teams leading a student body with average class sizes of 21.3 students, up from the current average of 18.
The proposed reduction of one of the four teams — which advocates argue provide better educational continuity for students — has drawn concerns from some school directors and MUMS teachers.
Restoring the 3.2 educator positions (and fourth team) to the MUMS spending plan would add roughly $155,000 (a 1.2 percent bump) to the UD-3 budget draft. That would create a proposed spending increase for all of UD-3 (including MUHS) of 4 percent, a level that Addison Central Supervisory Union officials believe would still keep the budget below the penalty spending threshold of Act 68, Vermont’s education funding law. It should be noted, however, that the department of education is not expected to release firm state aid numbers for at least another week.
Middlebury board member Bob Ritter said he realizes budget cuts are inevitable, but is not sold on them occurring next year.
“To me, the balance of 1.2 percent in the budget versus a shift in what the teaching model is going to be in nine months, concerns me,” Ritter said. “This is a direction in which we have to head; I do think we can’t sustain class sizes that we’ve been talking about, but I don’t feel comfortable making that shift in nine months. I would prefer it happen in a year or two years, rather than nine months.”
Salisbury board member Laura Lass agreed.
“My concern is that this (change) might be a little premature,” Lass said. “I think what (MUMS Principal) Patrick (Reen) proposed is what’s eventually going to happen in the future, but in the next couple of years, there will be an up-and-down, as far as enrollment. After that … it sort of levels out for quite a few years after that.”
Middlebury board member Mark Perrin agreed that MUMS has been operating a successful program with its four-team approach, but also noted the difficulties some area taxpayers are facing.
“We as board members have been asked at least a couple of times to look at educational spending, and what it is we can do to slow it down,” Perrin said.
“At some point we have to make tough decisions when we have an opportunity to keep money off the books,” he added. “I can’t say if our educational integrity is going to be so dramatically affected by going from four teams to three teams and that our kids will be negatively impacted by that … I know that education is going to have to challenge itself to step outside the box, shift paradigms and at some point we have to make those decisions.”
Ripton board member Jerry Shedd suggested more focus be placed on the impact on taxpayers, as opposed to just on the budget bottom line. The UD-3 share of the homestead education property tax rate could increase by a range of 3.4 percent in Salisbury to 15.9 percent in Ripton, if the latest $17,042,840 budget draft is approved, according to preliminary financial statistics compiled by the ACSU budget office. UD-3 serves students in Cornwall, Bridport, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.
“I’m not confortable with this (budget), but I don’t want it any bigger than it is,” Shedd said.
But Middlebury board member Devin McLaughlin argued the focus should continue to be on the budget bottom line because unlike local tax rates — which are influenced by external issues like the Common Level of Appraisal — school officials can control the bottom line through spending adjustments.
That said, he voiced frustration that the 2014-15 budget is being influenced by some factors out of the board’s purview — such as declining enrollment and a recent change in the manner in which special education and ACSU central office expenses are assessed. The new assessment formulae place a higher financial burden on the larger and more efficient schools within the ACSU.
“This year stinks,” McLaughlin said. “A 4-percent increase and all that goes along with it, is extremely difficult to swallow.”
McLaughlin expressed hopes that the MUMS faculty — many of whom listened to debate at the Dec. 3 meeting — would be able to sustain the quality of middle school programming with three teams instead of four.
Cornwall board member Peter Conlon noted MUMS will serve 65 fewer students in 2014 than it did in 2007-08, and believes the time has come to tailor programming to a smaller student body.
“We’ve known this was coming; we’ve talked about it for years,” Conlon said.
“A change of 65 students over five years warrants some kind of action and reaction,” he added. “It’s not fun, it’s not in the least bit pleasant, but it’s a reality we’ve known has been coming all this time.”
The UD-3 board will revisit the budget on Dec. 18 to consider a final proposal to present to district voters on Town Meeting Day. But there is a chance individual members will request school administrators be given more time to crunch the numbers and see if cuts could be made in other areas to allow for the four-team teaching model to continue.
“We’ll wait until Dec. 18 and see if the vote stands,” board chair Leonard Barrett said. “I know some people are still on the fence.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.