Wednesday March 20, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Little progress was made deciding where and how much to cut from the proposed budget rejected by voters earlier this month at a special Bennington School District meeting Tuesday.

The sole topic on the agenda was discussing a fiscal year 2014 budget that showed a 19 percent increase in spending in the board's first proposal.

At BSD's April 3 meeting, school administrators expect to bring back a list of cuts that would bring the budget increase down to 10 percent, however the board has not come to any agreement whether it would support such a reduction.

Some members of the board believe significant reductions must take place to receive voter support, which contrasted views from others who said voters could be swayed to support a larger increase if they understood increasing needs and declining federal support means more local funding is required.

"I think it's got to be a realistic budget. We can't tell people we cut a percent and a half out of it and this is what we really need," said Chairman Ken Swierad, who has asked for the board to be presented with a budget that shows a 10 percent increase. "A 6 percent (increase) went down in Mount Anthony (among Bennington's voters) and I don't think we can say a 16 (percent increase) is something that's really needed."

"But it is," fellow board member Jackie Prue said with a raised voice as she banged her fists on the table. "That's what it costs to educate your kids."

Instead of cutting, Prue said more needs to be done to publicize how the district lost more than $1 million in federal grants, which is making up a large percent of the increase taxpayers were asked to approve on Town Meeting Day.

"We didn't explain the budget. Did we write letters? No. Not one of us wrote a letter explaining why our budget had a 19 percent increase," Prue said.

Sean-Marie Oller, a Bennington resident who is chairwoman of the Mount Anthony Union and SVSU school boards and attended the BSD meeting as a member of the audience, suggested the board also give taxpayers a comparison of spending in Bennington compared to other districts.

"The Bennington school district spends less per pupil than any of the other school districts in (Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union). It is actually one of the lowest in the state," Oller said.

Earlier in the month Swierad asked SVSU Chief Financial Officer Richard Pembroke to work with principals and show the board what recommended cuts would have to be made to bring the increase down to 10 percent. That work is in progress; however Pembroke said more conversations need to happen before he will be prepared to make a presentation to the board.

"We have had three meetings. One of them, today, lasted six hours. And to be perfectly honest with you, I'm not close," Pembroke said.

Conversations have been around trying to reduce as few positions as possible.

"We're literally going through it line by line and trying to find anything and everything ... Based on our current discussions, the staff positions that we've identified are currently on the bottom of the list. Those are the last things we want to see go," Pembroke said. "We're tweaking a lot of things. I mean, we're taking $2,000 here, $2,000 there, (but) it's going to take a lot of $2,000 to get down below 10 percent."

To get to 10 percent, the district will have to reduce about $1 million from the previous proposal.

While discussions on the local budget won't begin until next month, Swierad and Vice Chairman George Sleeman met with Pembroke and identified $375,000 in potential reductions to the SVSU budget that would reduce the assessment BSD receives. The SVSU board, which is made up of two representatives from the six districts in the supervisory union, would have to agree to reduce its budget. The areas that were identified include $20,000 for teacher tuition to take courses, $20,000 for curriculum materials, $53,000 for the proposed human resources director slated to begin next January, $25,000 for a part-time file clerk, $50,000 in miscellaneous administrative reductions, and $208,000 for the PLUS program, which is the entire increase in expenses the program for special needs children was slated to receive.

The cuts are assessed to all six member districts in the supervisory union based on the number of students in each. BSD's enrollment makes up 26 percent of the students in SVSU, so even if the SVSU board agreed to make all of the cuts it would only reduce BSD's expenses just under $100,000 -- or less than 1 percent.

The board could not agree on any of the potential cuts and decided to hold off on making a request to the SVSU board to re-open the budget it approved in January. Swierad said he would support making the reductions to the SVSU budget because the cuts have little direct impact on students.

"The cuts here don't represent classroom teachers," Swierad said. "There's no question any of these things hurt, but the problem is we want to hurt our own Bennington youngsters as least as possible. I mean, an HR person doesn't go into the classroom, doesn't do anything substantial to teach our youngsters directly. That's what I'm looking for, the least amount of hurt."

Others identified the human resources director as a position that has been needed for decades.

"Even though this isn't a direct service position, you need to take into effect the support this position can give to the direct service that can be hindering the education," board member Paul Becker said.

Superintendent Catherine McClure said part of the responsibilities of the position will be to help with internal communication and training of staff. It would also help handle personnel issues, which would free up the time of other administrators who could focus more on educational matters.

Given the small impact of the cuts on the BSD budget, some members of the board argued none of the reductions are worthwhile.

Reducing the tuition line would be a risk because even before cutting it there is not enough money earmarked to cover the contractual obligation that allows teachers to take up to two classes per year. Numerous board members said they would not support a reduction for curriculum materials that are in the budget to help buy new math books to replace outdated versions.

The only direct service on the chopping block from the SVSU budget is PLUS funding, which Swierad justified could be cut because the reduction represents level funding the program that already spends $35,000 for student.

That spending, however, is much less than the $300,000 it would costs BSD to send each student out of district for a residential placement, Prue said.

The board's next regular meeting is scheduled for April 3. It also scheduled a special meeting April 7 for budget discussions.

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