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Vernon School Board presents reduced school budget

VERNON—Despite a reduction of $37,506, some voters remain skeptical of the School Board’s attempts to make tough financial decisions.

Vernon voters narrowly defeated the $4.4 million school budget by Australian ballot on March 3. When a recount upheld the result, the School Board sharpened its pencils.

The School Board presented a revised budget of $4.37 million to an audience of approximately 40 voters in the first of two public hearings on April 13.

Reductions appeared in a handful of line items like substitute teacher pay, travel and conferences funding, computer software, the replacement of instructional equipment, and custodial supplies. Energy savings in areas like lighting and a heating fuel pre-buy were finalized, totaling $75,000.

The board had previously cut a paraprofessional position.

Approximately half of the total budget, or $2.4 million, funds the Vernon Elementary School.

The school budget also includes funding for Vernon’s assessment to the Brattleboro Union High School, Brattleboro Area Middle School, and Windham Regional Career Center. Vernon has school choice, so the budget also includes tuition payments to families with students in grades 7-12 attending other schools.

Board member Deb Hebert reminded voters that the board can only make cuts to the elementary school portion of the budget. The BUHS District #6 budget was approved in February.

Resident Dave Andrews told the board that the trajectory of Vernon’s school spending was unsustainable. He described the school as “heavily staffed.”

“What are the hard decisions that aren’t being talked about?” he asked.

One woman in the audience said now that Vermont Yankee has closed, people needed to wake up and cut the school budget.

A lot of elderly people in this town must choose between paying their tax bill or paying other expenses, she said.

Board chair and state Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, said that the board has incrementally reduced the school budget for many years in response to the state removing the Vermont Yankee plant from the Grand List.

Vernon only pays 75 percent of the state education tax rate because the town houses the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. This special rate will disappear in three years now that the plant has closed.

It is a delicate balance keeping costs and staffing levels appropriate while providing strong programs for students, said Hebert.

Vernon Elementary has reached a critical level of staffing, Hebert continued. Any more reductions could have negative consequences for students.

Hebert added that the board has attempted to find savings in controllable infrastructure costs, such as energy, fuel, and lighting.

Vernon Elementary Principal Dana Gordon-Macey said she didn’t see excess in the budget.

Each grade of students has different needs, behavior challenges, learning styles, and abilities, she said.

“How do we provide services to students who struggle more,” Gordon-Macey said.

Hebert echoed Gordon-Macey’s comments.

“Everybody walking through the door has different abilities,” said Hebert. “This board’s first priority is that the students in the school get the best opportunities we can provide them.”

The next public hearing on the school budget is April 27. Voters will cast their ballots on the budget May 5.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #301 (Wednesday, April 15, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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