Saturday May 25, 2013

ZEKE WRIGHT

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- The Bennington School District board appeared willing to whittle at least $400,000 from the district’s most recently proposed spending plan -- given the cuts do not directly hit curriculum.

"I think it’s doable. I really think it’s doable," BSD board Vice-Chairman George Sleeman said.

Even with that reduction, however, district voters would be faced with approval of a double-digit year-over-year increase in spending on the heels of two successive negative votes at the polls.

"Didn’t anyone see this loss of funds coming?" asked resident Albert Ray during public comment at the start of Thursday’s emergency meeting. Instead of offsetting spending with federal grants in fiscal years 2010 and 2011, when spending decreased 0.5 percent and 4.83 percent, respectively, Ray asked school officials whether level-funding then would have defrayed today’s spike. "I’m not a budget guy but to me it seems like you guys missed the ball on that."

Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Business Manager Richard Pembroke said board members had made a different decision at that time. "They saw very difficult times in the community, and they heard the voices in the community, and they did all they could to keep those tax rates as low as possible," Pembroke said.

The business manager was tasked by the end of the evening with collating possible reductions from board members and building principals for another meeting scheduled for this Thursday.


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Given each percent of the budget equaling between $115,000 to $120,000, the "ballpark figure" of $400,000 would reduce the fiscal year 2014 plan to $12.54 million: about a 10.4 percent increase over current year spending.

Reductions eyed this week included to line items for the board, "home liaison" positions, and various funds for contingency, equipment purchases, and building repairs.

Board Chairman Ken Swierad said every resident he spoke to who had voted against earlier proposals had voiced opposition to the spending increases (19 percent in March; 13.9 percent earlier this week).

Resident Laurie Mulhern faulted officials for not taking a more systematic approach to soliciting for feedback. "I have (heard from) many who say they don’t want to support an educational system that’s not meeting (Adequate Yearly Progress), that’s failing special needs students."

Members of the school board maintained opposition Thursday to cutting into staffing or core programs. "I’m not in favor of cutting any programs," began Sleeman, "but I am in favor, of tonight, looking at those items that don’t pertain to programs and to see what we can do at whittling away at (specific line items)."

Board member Paul Becker said he was also not interested in cutting programming, but that he had requested more information from central offices about possible reductions, and he asked for a reevaluation of contracted services for special education.

Board member Kelly Kennedy tallied about $250,000 that he thought were potential reductions following the recent vote. Kennedy said he would rather lose reserves and contingency funds than teachers. "We save it for a rainy day -- our rain is here."

Building principals spoke against eliminating home liaisons, skilled social workers which Molly Stark Principal Donna MacKenzie King said had been successful in making connections with parents and decreasing chronic absenteeism.

"That’s a huge part of what we’re working on, is getting kids and families invested in education in Bennington."

Budget must be approved, eventually

The most pressing date for staff is June 15, when student placements are expected.

Without an approved budget in place by July 1, Vermont statute permits the borrowing of funds to allow a school district to continue to operate. However, that allowance is only a "stopgap measure" until a spending plan is approved by voters, according to Brad James, an education finance manager with the Vermont Agency of Education.

"There is other language in (Vermont Education statute) Title 16 that requires a school board to come back with a budget for voter approval until a budget is passed," James wrote in an email this week.

The law allows a district to borrow up to 87 percent of the previous year’s budget, while accounting for funds the school is owed and will receive like federal and state grants.

While a budget remains unapproved, an interim homestead tax rate is imposed so that tax bills can be sent out by the town -- but those education property taxes aren’t transferrable to the school district until a budget is approved by the electorate. If past the date tax bills are mailed in August, then supplemental bills would need to be sent following approval of a spending plan.

"Ballpark figure"

"Is there anybody here who disagrees with the fact that $400,000 would be a logical figure, wherever it may come from, that we would be able to pound out of a budget?" Sleeman asked board members Thursday. "Rick, don’t be afraid to disagree."

"It’s not my budget," responded Pembroke. "I can put this at 0 if you want."

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