Saturday December 22, 2012

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union school board rejected a budget proposed by its Finance Committee Thursday but gave little insight as to what it wants changed.

Out of board control

The proposed fiscal year 2014 SVSU budget ballooned by more than $3 million (23.4 percent), however the majority of that increase is out of the board's control according to Chief Financial Officer Richard Pembroke and members of the Finance Committee.

The proposed draft showed an increase from $13,380,000 to $16,520,000. Of that increase, $2.3 million is in special education expenses and is reimbursable at a rate near 50 percent. That increase is due largely to contracted salary increases and additional staff needed to meet the increased needs of children in the supervisory union. There is also a separate $200,000 increase in the early childhood program for special education services for children from birth through preschool.

To make matters worse, the supervisory union will be dramatically impacted next fiscal year by a decrease of more than $1 million in revenue, which stems from a drop in federal aid and a decrease in the fund balance from last school year.

Even though many of the increases cannot be changed, a motion to pass the budget was rejected 6-7. Peter Frantic, a Mount Anthony Union representative, and all three representatives from Bennington and North Bennington voting against it.

"We're asking taxpayers who are in the same position as everybody else to come up with a whole bunch more money. An awfully lot of people in this town can't do it," Frantz said. "I believe that money can be cut, and I'm going to put the figure at a million."

Unlike those of local school districts, supervisory union budgets in Vermont are not voted by the public. The expenses in the SVSU budget -- which include all special education and transportation costs as well as SVSU administration, curriculum, technology and other expenses -- are assessed to the member districts for the services they receive.

The Finance Committee has been meeting weekly for more than a month to work on the budget. Nearly everyone on that committee publicly supported the proposal and after it was rejected said they were out of options of places to cut.

"As a (Finance) Committee member we went through each department and looked at where we could possibly cut, and honestly couldn't find anywhere," said Jennifer Arlotta, of Shaftsbury.

Pembroke and members of the Finance Committee pressed those who voted against the budget to offer guidance on what they would like to see changed, but most had little to offer.

Ken Swierad, of Bennington, was the only board members who voted against the draft who offered a specific line item to put on the chopping block. Swierad singled out $20,000 for tutors in BSD's special education "resource room," although the other two BSD representatives disagreed. He also pointed to transportation costs for special education programs and money for professional development.

George Sleeman said he wants to look at everything other than special education and the last BSD representative Claude DeLucia said he simply wants the bottom line decreased.

None of the North Bennington representatives gave much of an indication of how they would like the budget changed other than lowering the total.

Matthew Patterson first said he wanted to see the budget reduced because North Bennington could not afford to see its assessment increase $150,000.

"I understand a lot of (the increases are) out of the control -- it's the federal monies, it's the insurance, it's all that, those are things we have to have ... and we're not going to get the federal money, then it's time that we start chopping," Patterson said.

Later in the meeting Patterson said because the public does not vote on the budget it is important people see the board is making painful cuts, even if it is only a $100,000 reduction (which would reduce North Bennington's assessment less than $4,000).

"It's not about the dollar figure ... I would be willing to entertain a revote if I saw $100,000 come off this budget," Patterson said. "There's got to be a little pain, even if it's symbolic."

Other than special education, some of the new items in the budget include a director of human resources, a records clerk for clerical duties and scanning and electronically filing years of paper files stored at Central Office, and a special education coordinator. The coordinator position would cost $100,000 for salary and benefits. Special Education Director Kathy Buck said the position would be an administrator working under her to assist with supervision and evaluation, compliance, monitoring and other duties now done by building facilitators.

Chairwoman Sean-Marie Oller said because the new position will take over some duties now handled at the school level there could be other lines in the special education department the board could reduce. Oller, who did not vote as chairwoman but spoke in favor of the proposed budget, said after the vote she could see reducing $50,000 from special education, another $50,000 from the PLUS program, and cut one of the two technology integration specialists (who work with teachers to incorporate technology in their curriculum).

The Finance Committee agreed to review the budget on Jan. 3 and Jan. 10 and the full board will likely vote on another draft Jan. 17. By that point it will be important a budget is finalized in order to give accurate assessments to member districts in time to finalize their own budgets by Feb. 3.

The board did agree to change the way most technology positions are funded -- from directly assessing each district for their employees to making the employees all supervisory union-wide so there is greater flexibility. The change does not impact the same bottom line expense, although each district will be assessed different rates. The SVSU board was unanimous to accept the change except for the three North Bennington representatives who voted against it. North Bennington is the only district other than MAU that actually sees a savings from the change, but Raymond Mullineaux said he does not support it because it limits districts' control of staffing in their buildings and takes supervision authority away from the school principals and gives it to the supervisory union.

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