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Mike Faher/VtDigger and The Commons; inset: David Shaw/Commons file photo

Administrators of Leland & Gray Union High School are navigating the difficulties of building a budget that avoids exceeding new state school spending limits. Inset: Principal Dorinne Dorfman.


Leland & Gray budget proposal includes staff cuts

School officials say they've been able to stay under a state spending-increase threshold for 2016-17, but at a cost of almost three positions

TOWNSHEND—In drawing up a proposed budget for the 2016-17 school year, Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School administrators found a way to avoid exceeding a new, state-imposed spending limit that is causing headaches in other schools. They did so even while absorbing a big health-care cost hike and setting aside money for security upgrades.

Overall, though, the school’s frugality comes at a cost: The preliminary plan calls for staff reductions adding up to a little less than three full-time positions, including one full-time position in math.

The cuts concerned one teacher who attended a recent board meeting, but officials said they’re doing what they can within their financial constraints.

“We try to make it work,” said Steven John, Windham Central Supervisory Union superintendent. “I can’t take any pride in reduction of force. It’s a necessity because we don’t have unlimited resources.”

Leland & Gray, which serves the union towns of Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend, and Windham and is a school of choice for students in several other towns, has had mixed response to its budgets in recent years: While the 2015-16 budget was approved on the first try in the five union towns, three votes were required the year before.

Principal Dorinne Dorfman noted that the school’s spending has stayed relatively stable. “Over the last two years, the budget increases for Leland & Gray have been minute or none,” she said.

Trimming the teachers

The $7.17 million proposed 2016-17 spending plan, unveiled at a Nov. 10 school board meeting, continues that trend. And that’s all the more important this budget season, as Act 46 — Vermont’s new education-governance law — set limits for each school district’s increase in spending per equalized pupil. Schools can exceed those thresholds, but there is a steep tax penalty if they do so.

Leland & Gray’s threshold is 1.24 percent. And the 2016-17 budget appears, at first glance, to exceed that by including a total spending increase of 3.23 percent.

However, most of that increase is due to a big hike in special-education costs, and the state aid that funds that program does not count toward the Act 46 spending threshold, said Victor “Bud” DeBonis, Windham Central’s chief financial officer.

Dorfman said the nuances of that spending formula “will be a challenge to explain to the community.”

Officials said the proposed budget comes in under the state’s spending-increase threshold in part due to staffing cuts parceled out among five subject areas.

For instance, in visual art, a 0.17 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff reduction means cutting one class, Dorfman told board members as they took their first look at the plan. There also is 0.17 FTE sliced from health/physical education and a 0.2 FTE reduction for the school social worker.

Dorfman said the plan at this point is to have that social worker — who already spends a portion of the week at the Windham and Townshend elementaries — begin working also in the Jamaica and Wardsboro schools in collaboration with the nonprofit Neighborhood Connections and with support from The Stratton Foundation.

While that means the social worker will spend less time at Leland & Gray, Dorfman believes the change represents “a very good investment — intervening much earlier, working with students and families.”

The budget cuts one full-time position from a structured study-hall program and another from mathematics.

The latter decision was “based on need and the schedule,” Dorfman said, explaining that the school is eliminating a consumer math course that has low enrollment and is not based on Common Core standards.

The change did not sit well with Sue Jones, who teaches that course.

Jones told school board members that the subject should receive more emphasis — not less — because “our students are leaving without the skills they need to manage their money.”

“Through the years, I’ve slowly seen my family and consumer science position chipped away, chipped away, chipped away,” Jones said. “It is not tested in the Common Core, but I really feel very strongly about my curriculum — that it teaches skills that the kids need to have.”

It’s not clear whether that cut will make it through the budget process. But some spending reductions might be necessary because, in drafting the spending plan, administrators had to find room for a “steep increase” — 7.9 percent — in health-care premiums.

They also are seeking increased funding in some areas. For faculty and staff, that includes more money for music, due to an increase in enrollment; for administration, due to additional planning responsibilities; and in social studies, due to more funding for the Journey East international program.

There also is a new focus on school safety at Leland & Gray. Officials said a recent security review by a state consultant led to a $13,095 budgetary line item labeled “security supplies”; it includes money for new walkie-talkie radios and batteries, three additional security cameras, and a secure exterior box designed to give emergency responders quick access to the school.

Additionally, Dorfman wrote in her budget rationale that “security will be greatly improved with the installation of an intercom communication system at the front entrance outside of the building.”

Melanie Zwolinski, student services director, cited the need for advance planning as justification for the investment. Zwolinski told the board that “$13,095 may seem like a lot, but I think, for what we’re getting, it puts us on another level.”

The school board next meets to discuss the proposed budget on Dec. 1. Board approval is required before year’s end, and a vote in the five union towns will happen in February.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #333 (Wednesday, November 25, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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