Vernon school board eyes post-Yankee world
MIKE FAHER , Brattleboro Reformer
VERNON -- Vernon School Board members are mulling staff changes, energy savings and other measures in anticipation of reduced revenues in a post-Vermont Yankee world.
But officials say slicing expenses from a school budget requires an X-ACTO knife, not an ax: Officials must give careful consideration to educational standards and class sizes, among other factors.
That’s why the school board’s fiscal year 2015 budget preparation will continue into January, with a still-unscheduled public forum to follow.
"You reach a certain point where you can’t go any further (with cuts)," school board member Mike Hebert said. "It’s a little tricky for schools when you’re trying to cut the budget."
In Vernon, both town and school officials have been weighing their financial options since August, when Entergy announced that the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant will cease producing power by the end of 2014.
Yankee is responsible for about half of the town’s tax revenues.
Vernon Elementary School has seen recent enrollment growth, and officials added a teaching position in the current year’s budget in response to that trend.
But school board members also said they had worked hard to keep costs down and decided to forego an annual appropriation into the elementary’s capital plan.
Nonetheless, residents participating in Vernon’s 2013 Town Meeting had to cast votes on two school-spending measures -- one for nearly $4.2 million and another for an additional $95,212.
That’s because the elementary’s budget met two criteria: The school’s spending per equalized pupil exceeded the state average, and overall spending in the school’s fiscal 2014 budget exceeded the prior year’s spending, adjusted by an inflation index, plus 1 percent.
The fiscal 2014 budget was approved in two Australian Ballot votes.
But school board members know they must come up with ways to tame spending in the fiscal 2015 plan. Such deliberations will continue in January, when "we should be going over the preliminary draft of the budget and discussing some reductions," Hebert said.
In preparation for those discussions, board members "generated a pretty sizable list of questions," he added.
Those included inquiries about projected enrollment and impacts of the state’s pending adoption of the so-called "Common Core" educational standards.
"It’s coming quickly, and we have to prepare for that," Hebert said of Common Core.
In the end, though, budget cuts seem inevitable.
Officials are looking at transportation and food-service spending, and energy costs also are in play. Hebert said the board wants to see how much the school saved due to a recent improvement in lighting efficiency.
"We also have someone coming in to talk to us about a solar array," Hebert said.
Of course, personnel is the school’s biggest cost. Hebert said school administrators are anticipating a few retirements, which could save some money.
Officials also are considering moving one kindergarten teacher to first grade to adjust to enrollment changes.
"So that’s not a staff reduction," Hebert said.
Vernon School Board members have talked with town officials about finding ways to cooperatively cut costs. But when it comes time to present budget proposals to voters in advance of Town Meeting, Hebert said it probably makes sense for the two governmental bodies to hold separate public forums.
"There’s so much going on with the town side," Hebert said. "I think we’re going to do our own. They have huge issues to deal with. We have different issues to deal with."
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