Saturday January 5, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- A committee has cut a quarter-million dollars from a proposed fiscal 2014 budget that the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union board rejected last month.

But whether that is enough to sway the board -- which voted 7-6 not to accept the Finance Committee's proposal on Dec. 20 -- remains to be seen. Those who opposed the draft budget gave various, and few, explanations. Two members who voted against the previous proposal suggested at Thursday's Finance Committee meeting they could go along with the revisions, although both also expressed continued concerns about rising costs.

Still up $2.86M

The proposed budget of $16.25 million is still up $2.86 million, or 21 percent, even after cutting $274,000 from December's proposal.

Chief Financial Officer Richard Pembroke said the board has little control regarding most of that increase. The bulk of it is due to added special education services to meet increased needs; $1.2 million of the impact on local taxpayers stems for projected losses of federal grants. It has been made more difficult to find areas to cut because the SVSU budget decreased from 2009 to 2011.

"We are truly in a perfect storm. We've got needs in the district that are skyrocketing out of sight, and probably in hindsight it was wrong but we have worked hard to maximize every dollar to keep these budgets artificially low to save the taxpayers during very, very difficult times," Pembroke said.

The cuts administrators presented to the Finance Committee Thursday include reductions across the board.

Some of the more notable cuts include $58,000 from not replacing a special educator who is retiring, $40,000 for professional development reimbursements, $50,000 for in-service training, $15,000 for tutors, and $14,000 by consolidating two part-time speech language pathologists to a full-time position.

"It is really across the spectrum of the budget. Every department took a hit to some degree," Pembroke said.

There is also a $14,000 savings from assuming support staff will pay 14 percent of their health insurance next school year instead of 13 percent as they do now. The support staff contract expires in June and the budget assumes their contribution will go up next year, although Pembroke warned the board such an assumption ties the board's hands in negotiations.

All three Bennington and North Bennington representatives, as well as Peter Frantz from the Mount Anthony Union board, voted against the previous budget proposal. None of North Bennington's representatives attended the Finance Committee meeting Thursday.

George Sleeman, of Bennington, and Frantz suggested they could go along with the proposed SVSU budget but at the same time said compounded with district budget increases the SVSU budget could still be cut more.

"Bennington is really going to look at a figure that is staggering this year and I really question whether or not we're going to be able to get it through, and that's what I'm looking at. I'm not looking at nickel or diming the supervisory union, I'm looking at the bottom line of the Bennington School District budget," Sleeman said. "Can I go with this? Sure, I'm willing to for this, but I'm really concerned about what it's going to do when this is added to our budget at the Bennington School District."

Ken Swierad, of Bennington, said he'd like to see even more cuts. One recommendation he had was to delay hiring a human resource director until the middle of next school year instead of at the start.

Frantz said he would like to continue looking at special education to see if there could be further reductions. Frantz suggested there are a number of locally funded programs that used to be grant funded and are not mandatory.

"I think the budget can be cut more. I can't believe that all of these programs in special education need to be there," Frantz said. "I have a hard time with school systems in general being the mental health agencies for the town."

Special Education Director Kathy Buck did not offer any programs for the board to consider eliminating, but did suggest that the number of special education paraprofessionals in the supervisory union, which is decided by individual schools, appears to be much higher than needed.

"It seems like we have too many paraprofessionals, but I can't seem to stop the flood and the need," Buck said. "Teachers and principals are saying they want more, they need more, and they just can't seem to serve these kids without more and more of these professionals."

One of the responsibilities of a proposed special education coordinator, who would work directly below the director, would be to evaluate the need for all of the paraprofessionals. At this time Buck said she is unable to do that and nobody else is "motivated" to do it. "The teacher is happy because the para is in the classroom, the special ed teacher is happy because they've got somebody to be watching this kid, the principal is happy because the parent isn't complaining anymore, the parent is happy because no one is calling them. I seem to be the only one who is saying why do we have all these paras? What are all these paras doing?"

Nobody on the board suggested reducing the number, and in fact the proposed budget includes four additional paras.

While the committee looked for additional reductions there were also warnings from administration that the cuts made in the most recent proposal could come back to bite the board.

One department that may be affected greatest by the most recent reductions is curriculum. Curriculum Director Kathi Marcoux advised the board the $40,000 taken from the line item for professional development reimbursement could force a deficit in the line item. Teachers are allowed by contract to take two seminars, classes or other professional development opportunities each year so money will have to be pulled from somewhere even if the professional development line runs dry.

The Finance Committee will meet one more time next week before making a proposal to the full board on Jan. 17.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi