SVSU draft budget up less than 1 percent

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BENNINGTON — The budget of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union appears to be on track for an increase of less than 1 percent for the 2018-2019 school year.

At first glance, the budget appears set to increase 3.82 percent, or $924,837. However, the vast majority of this increase comes from the $728,480 that is shifting from local boards to the SVSU after the latest round of collective bargaining moved all paraeducators from being employees of the local boards to employees of the SU. No additional money is actually being spent, as the cost is simply shifting to the SVSU budget. Taking that into account, the real increase is $196,357, or 0.81 percent over this current year's budget.

While he hesitated to use the term "hiring freeze," Superintendent Jim Culkeen made it clear to administrators and department heads that with the shortfall in the state education budget, any proposed new positions would be heavily scrutinized, more so than in a typical year. State officials have estimated the shortfall could be as much as $80 million, and could add 8 cents to local tax rates before local budgets are even considered.

The SVSU board met with department heads for over two hours on Wednesday, and have tentatively scheduled a second budget meeting for Tuesday, Dec. 19 to continue discussing the issue. Typically, the SVSU budget is the first to be finalized. Taxpayers do not pay or vote on the SVSU budget directly; instead, it is distributed to the local school boards, whose budgets in turn are used to calculate the local tax rates.

The numbers from this first draft budget are by no means final, and additional cuts or expenses could be made from this point. One of the biggest items still up for discussion is the inclusion of a computer program designed to more accurately track the hours of hourly employees. SVSU Human Resources Director Ed McTiernan said that the system could actually lead to cost savings, as the current system is based on scheduled, rather than actual, hours, which could potentially open the school system up to lawsuits or fines.

"We're not doing it right, right now," he said. "It's a weakness for us." The entire system would cost $37,800. However, if employees are found to be not being properly compensated for their actual hours worked, the fines can equal as much as $1,100 per event per person. "If we try to (track hours) on paper, I don't have the staff to tally that every week."

"Is this the year to do it, with the budget cuts?" he said. "I don't know." But he did refer to the lack of proper tracking as a potential "ticking time bomb" for the SU.

Funding was removed from the budget this year for a public information officer, which was added to the budget last year, although the position was never filled. Culkeen said that the position had not even been posted, after news came from Montpelier about the, at the time, potential budget shortfall. "Why am I going to put someone in a position that I'm afraid is going to be the first one cut?" he said.

In total across the SVSU, collectively bargained salaries increased by 4.84 percent, but benefits increased by only 0.8 percent due in large part to savings in health care under the newly negotiated teacher and education support personnel contracts. Transportation costs are expected to increased 7.78 percent, in part due to the projected cost of a new busing contract.

Broken down by department, the early education budget would increase by 3.16 percent, or $89,223. Of that, $76,000 comes from increased tuition costs, due to an increase in students, who need to be tuitioned out to partner programs, as the public pre-K has been running at capacity.

Special education, including elementary, secondary, and OnPoint services, will increase by 0.18 percent, or $28,616. The largest line increase comes from transportation, which increased $119,307, in part due to the projected new contract and in part due to an increase in student out-of-district placement needs. "I feel like we're in a really good place to provide students with what they need," said Special Education Director Wendy Pierce.

The curriculum department's budget would remain largely the same from this year, up only 0.11 percent, or $884. English language learner expenses are projected to drop 11.45 percent, or $17,067, but SVSU officials cautioned that this can change rapidly as ELL students with varying needs move in and out of the districts.

The technology department budget would be down 2.09 percent, $32,368. The budget was slightly higher last year due to a large project that effectively doubled the number of wireless access points throughout the schools, which is now completed.

The human resources department would see its budget increase by 15.83 percent, or $71,835, including the $37,800 hour-tracking system.

The administration budget is down 2.86 percent, or $21,717, after removing the public information officer position and adding a school safety officer position, which is filled by Vic Milani. Milani has worked with administrators over the last year to develop new safety plans for each of the schools. Those plans were put into place on Sept. 1 of this year.

Finally, the finance office budget is projected to increase 3.28 percent, or $19,981, almost entirely from salary and benefit increases.

The draft budget presentation that was presented to the board is available on SVSU.org.

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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