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Despite 'phantom student' cuts, voters OK Leland & Gray budget

TOWNSHEND—In spite of planned staff cuts, a tax hike and a run-in with a new state enrollment rule, Leland & Gray’s fiscal year 2018 budget passed easily in voting Feb. 8.

In fact, the union middle and high school’s $6.3 million spending plan was approved by a nearly 2-to-1 margin: There were a total of 276 “yes” votes and 139 “no” votes cast in Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend, and Windham.

Administrators see the vote both as a sign of support and as a springboard to planning for Leland & Gray’s financial and educational future.

“As Leland & Gray embarks on a process of reinvention in the next couple of years, it was essential for us to not only pass our budget to continue operations, but to discover that the community’s support for the school is widespread,” Principal Bob Thibault said the day after the vote.

The fiscal 2018 budget-planning process wasn’t easy at Leland & Gray, in large part due to efforts to reduce the number of “phantom students” in Vermont.

As part of Act 46, the controversial 2015 education law, the state is transitioning away from a statutory provision that has protected school districts from the effects of declining enrollment.

Previously, a school’s equalized pupil count couldn’t fall by more than 3.5 percent year to year, no matter how much actual enrollment fell. As of fiscal year 2018, that potential equalized pupil decline rises to 10 percent.

Because of the state’s emphasis on the equalized pupil count formula for school funding and taxes, the change has big financial implications for districts like Leland & Gray, where enrollment has been falling.

So the Leland & Gray board initially asked Thibault to slice $300,000 from his spending proposal for next fiscal year. Subsequently, the board requested an additional $49,000 in reductions.

The effect was a host of proposed cuts. In addition to deleting a new assistant-principal position, the budget presented to the school board in December also eliminated a full-time science teacher; a partial music-instruction position; a partial mathematics job; and a cooperative-education teaching position.

Also taken out of the budget was funding for the school’s snowboarding program and a variety of other equipment and supplies.

The issue came to a head at a school board meeting in late December, as residents jammed into Dutton Gym to protest those cuts. Following lengthy testimony from the crowd, the school board voted to preserve the music and cooperative teaching positions and to restore funding for snowboarding and technical education equipment.

The other cuts remained, but they weren’t enough to keep Leland & Gray from expected tax hikes.

In one example used by school officials, a property in Townshend — featuring a $200,000 home on two acres, with household income of more than $90,000 — would see a 6 percent increase. That increase would be less for homeowners who are subject to the state’s “income sensitivity” tax reductions.

Nevertheless, the overwhelming support for that budget plan expressed by those who attended the December meeting seemed to spill over into the Feb. 8 budget vote.

Though only the overall vote total matters, majorities in each of the five towns favored the spending plan. The biggest margin was in Newfane, where the vote was 126-38; the smallest was in Brookline, where affirmative votes outnumbered negative votes 25-23.

Now, school officials will turn their attention to Leland & Gray’s future. With enrollment declines expected to continue, some have warned that fundamental changes are needed.

In a note penned for Leland & Gray’s recent annual report, Thibault promised to engage the school and the community to “investigate what L & G will look like, educationally, moving forward.”

“This is challenging, but incredibly important work,” Thibault wrote. “The students of the West River Valley deserve a high-quality and rigorous curriculum that prepares them for both college and the workforce.”

Thibault said he believes this week’s budget vote was “not only an outpouring of support for small and effective schooling, but a vote of confidence for the new administrative team” in Windham Central Supervisory Union and at Leland & Gray.

That new team includes Thibault and Windham Central Superintendent Bill Anton, both of whom took their positions last year. Anton praised Thibault’s leadership during a tough budget year.

Amid “the reality of declining student enrollment, the need for Leland & Gray to take a fresh look at operations and the desire for the community to feel hopeful and engaged, Bob led the way,” Anton said. “He embraced the challenge of the fundamental redesign.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #395 (Wednesday, February 15, 2017). This story appeared on page 0.

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