Wednesday January 9, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- The Mount Anthony Union Finance Committee reviewed a fiscal year 2014 budget draft with a 7.3 percent increase for the first time Monday and asked administration to come back with a 5 percent hike.

The draft, which includes few significant changes other than inflationary growth and contracted salary and benefit increases, is up $1.74 million. Principals of Mount Anthony Union middle and high schools will have to find $300,000 to cut in order to bring the budget to a 5 percent increase, which high school Principal Sue Maguire said means eliminating six to eight teachers.

"If we went to 5 percent it's about a half million dollars ... the only way to do that is to cut six to eight teachers. You can't cut supplies to get half a million dollars," Maguire said. "I think it would be very hard to cut six to eight teachers and have the same quality of education."

"That's your electives"

Middle School Principal Timothy Payne said if he were forced to cut teaching positions it would mean cutting things like foreign language, art or music and diminish the benefit large schools have in their ability to offer unique programing.

"Six to eight is going to come out of your unified section. You can't cut the team side of it because you're at class sizes of 20 to 21 right now ... the unified, that's your language, that's your electives, those are all the things that make a program attractive for kids to go to a school," Payne said.


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Timothy Holbrook, chairman of the Finance Committee, said any further cuts identified by principals to bring the budget down to a 5 percent increase would not necessarily be eliminated but would give the committee options if it chooses to reduce the budget further.

"I think it's our responsibility to go back to the administration and ask them to come up with a budget that will drop that 7 percent, let's say to 5 percent, and then present that to the board along with the implications of those cuts. And then the board has to make the hard decision of whether to do that or not," Holbrook said. "That doesn't mean that the board is going to approve those cuts, it just gives us an opportunity to take a look at ways we could save money."

The total draft budget is $25.64 million -- not including what the district has to raise on behalf of Southwest Vermont Career Development Center because technical centers in Vermont are not taxing districts.

The only significant changes to the proposed budget is a reduction of a half-time physical education teacher at the high school (a part-time position the high school has not filled this year) and the addition of $50,000 at the middle school for technology upgrades.

Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Chief Financial Officer Richard Pembroke said contracted salary and benefit increases account for approximately a 5 percent increase to the budget. One of those drivers is a 15 percent increase in health insurance that MAU budgeted for.

Principals of both schools distributed class size numbers that show the majority of classes at both schools already have 15 to 20 students, with the exception of the lowest level classes at the high school that have many students with learning disabilities who need greater attention.

A significant part of the increase at MAU is due to an increased assessment from SVSU, which oversees all special education in the schools. The SVSU budget has yet to be finalized and some members of the Finance Committee said MAU should take a closer look at those assessments to see if some special education services can be reduced.

The only other recommendation of where to cut costs was aimed at alternative programs. Board member Ken Swierad pointed to the $27,000 budget for the high school's Twilight Program -- which allows students at-risk of dropping out to work from 8 a.m. to noon and then attend classes after the normal school day. The program has been praised within the community and by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders as a creative way to get at-risk teenagers to graduate and prepared for the workforce, but is also expensive to run for about a dozen students each year.

"It is expensive and that's what you've got to decide (whether the benefit outweighs the cost). Those kids will not stay in school without it. Could we do without it and just expect that they're going to drop out, we could," Maguire said.

In addition to potential cuts, the Finance Committee will receive an estimated tax rate on the proposed budget at its next meeting. The board has until the beginning of February to finalize a budget.

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