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Leland & Gray school board members listen to protests against possible budget cuts during a meeting Dec. 20 at Dutton Gym.

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‘Phantom’ student loss leads to budget cuts at Leland & Gray

School proposes cutting one teacher but resists slashing deeper as community defends programs

TOWNSHEND—Citing the impact of new enrollment regulations under Act 46, Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School officials have endorsed more than $200,000 in cuts for next fiscal year’s budget.

The fiscal 2018 spending plan, which will be subject to a five-town vote in February, includes the elimination of one full-time science teaching position.

But Leland & Gray’s school board declined to make even deeper staffing cuts after hearing protests from a crowd that packed into Dutton Gym on Dec. 20. The overwhelming message seemed to be: Raise taxes if you have to, but don’t slash programs like music, cooperative education, and snowboarding.

The board approved a $6.3 million budget that will boost tax rates but keeps those programs intact.

“I think we have to listen to the community,” board member Howard Ires said.

Ires represents Windham, one of the five towns in the Leland & Gray union. Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, and Townshend are the others.

Away from ’hold harmless’

School officials in those Windham Central Supervisory Union towns have been working to comply with the merger provisions of Act 46, the 2015 state law that pushes for larger, centrally governed school districts.

But there’s a lesser-known provision of Act 46 that is causing issues for Leland & Gray: The law transitions away from “hold harmless” protections that had prevented districts from suffering the full financial effects of declining enrollment.

Previously, no matter how many actual students a school lost, its all-important “equalized pupil” count couldn’t fall by more than 3.5 percent year to year. For fiscal year 2018, however, that possible decline rises to 10 percent.

The change is designed to reduce the number of “phantom students” created by artificially high enrollment figures in Vermont schools.

But it also exposes districts where there has been consistent enrollment loss, like Leland & Gray, to harsh financial realities. Officials must either cut their budgets accordingly or face much higher tax rates due to higher per-pupil spending.

“The fact is, phantom students caught up with us,” said Emily Long, a Leland & Gray board member from Newfane. “They’re going away, and we need to deal with that.”

After receiving word about enrollment numbers and associated financial impacts, the Leland & Gray board asked Principal Bob Thibault to cut $300,000 from his initial spending plan for fiscal 2018.

Those cuts, introduced in mid-December, deleted a new assistant principal position Thibault had proposed. The document also eliminated the school’s snowboarding program; one full-time science teacher; and part of a music teaching position.

A host of other, smaller cuts also were proposed, affecting technical education equipment, professional development equipment, building security supplies, co-curricular supplies and library texts.

The board subsequently received even worse enrollment news and asked Thibault to slice an additional $49,000 from the budget. He came to the Dec. 20 meeting with a proposal to eliminate a cooperative education teaching position.

Determined resistance

But many students, parents and other residents also showed up, determined to reverse those budget-reduction proposals. Kim Friedman, a Newfane resident, summed up the crowd’s mood when she told the board that “this community and this school cannot withstand these kinds of deep cuts.”

Newfane resident Dan DeWalt drew a big round of applause after a fiery speech in which he endorsed higher taxes rather than budget reductions.

“We are willing to step up to the plate, even pay the penalty, because we know that if we let these draconian cuts go through, it will be the death knell of our school,” DeWalt said. “Not next year, maybe not the year after, [but] it will be the end of our school.”

DeWalt also expressed frustration with the state’s school-funding system — a common theme at the meeting. By proposing budget cuts, DeWalt told the school board, “you are siding with a Legislature which has become dysfunctional.”

Many speakers defended the merits of specific programs. Cooperative education teacher Nika Oakes rose to defend her own job, offering a long list of topics — from budgeting to college applications to planning for parenthood — that are covered in her classes.

“If we’re looking to attract students to our school in the future, I think this is the way to go,” Oakes said. “It’s learning outside the typical classroom.”

After more than an hour of public comment, Ires made a motion to restore $93,500 in funding for the music staffing position, snowboarding program, and technical education equipment. That budget was approved via unanimous voice vote.

The board also declined to consider eliminating the cooperative education position.

But other cuts — including equipment, supplies, the assistant principal and the science teacher — remain in the spending plan.

’Any cut is not good’

Bruce Whitman, a Leland & Gray teacher who is president of Windham Central Education Association, wondered about the resulting impact on elective science courses.

“Any cut is not good,” Whitman said the day after the board’s vote.

Overall, though, Whitman said he was “extremely happy with the board” because they “listened to the public for an extended period of time, and I thought they listened closely.”

He’s hoping there will be more community conversation before voters consider the budget via Australian ballot on Feb. 8. “I think people who are in favor of this now have to go to work to get the word out about the budget and talk to [voters] about why these decisions were made,” Whitman said.

But some wonder whether it will be a hard sell, despite the enthusiasm at the Dec. 20 meeting. That’s because restoring some of the proposed budget cuts puts Leland & Gray over the state’s “excess spending threshold,” bringing an additional tax penalty to the district.

Laurie Garland, Windham Central’s interim business manager, said it’s too early to nail down exact tax figures. But she estimated that a Jamaica resident with a $200,000 home would pay an additional $306 in taxes under the Leland & Gray and Jamaica Village School fiscal 2018 budget plans as they now stand.

That concerned some board members. “Out there in the community, there are working families who are struggling to make ends meet day in and day out, and we have to represent them as well,” Long said.

With more enrollment declines likely over the next several years, district officials say they’ll embark on a planning process to determine how to shape Leland & Gray’s programs and staff. Long said such planning is critical.

“I’m worried about losing Leland & Gray,” she said. “I’m worried about it going away if we don’t fundamentally change what we’re doing.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #389 (Wednesday, December 28, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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