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Lowering the bottom line

Vernon School Board confident voters will pass budget on second try

VERNON—The sound system buzzed in the Vernon Elementary School cafeteria as a handful of residents waited for the School Board to take their seats.

The School Board presented its reduced Vernon school budget in an information session Monday starting at 6 p.m.

Voters defeated the fiscal year 2015 budget during a three-night Annual Town Meeting in March.

According to informational materials presented at the meeting, the revised fiscal 2015 budget is $50,732 lighter than the version proposed in March.

“We have changed the budget quite a bit,” said School Board Chairman and state Rep. Michael Hebert.

Hebert added that the board reduced the budget in areas with the least impact on students’ education.

“What you really do with a budget is slow down its rate of increase,” said Hebert. “Because everything goes up.”

The board reduced a number of line items and shifted $19,000 from the Capital Fund to purchase new laptop computers for teachers as part of a five-year replacement cycle. The net change in the budget totaled $69,732.

The Vernon school budget includes funding for Vernon Elementary School, early education, and tuition for secondary education.

Hebert told the audience that despite the cuts, the $4.3 million proposed fiscal year 2015 budget is 1.35 percent bigger than the current budget.

According to Hebert, the School Board can control spending only in the elementary school. Other education expenses, such as tuition to Brattleboro Union High School, are not entirely within the Vernon board’s control.

“As you can see, we don’t have a lot of movement in this budget,” said Hebert. He added that the board has built a level-service budget to maintain quality elementary school education.

The cuts reduced retirement funds for paraprofessionals and professional development for all staff. The board and school administration also reviewed the history of some spending to find additional cuts, such as a reduction in money budgeted for Internet service.

Two thousand dollars was trimmed from SCAMP, the school’s summer kindergarden readiness program.

The board said a lot of savings had been found in busing students. Vernon has saved about $33,469 by sending out its transportation bid with the school supervisory union, rather than bidding buses on its own.

Efficiency upgrades to the lighting system have also paid off, said Hebert.

The school took advantage of a lighting upgrade program through Efficiency Vermont last summer. The school has five years to repay the cost of upgrades.

In the 2012-13 school year, the school spent $43,746 on electricity; that was budgeted at $40,000 for the 2014-2015 school year.

Hebert explained the board is weighing participation in a solar net metering project through Green Lantern Capital that could further trim the school’s power costs.

Most of the budget discussion focused on School Board stipends. Combined, the board is compensated $20,000. The board reduced that by $5,000.

Resident Lynda Starorypinski had argued the board should cut its stipend by $10,000, noting the Vernon board earned a greater stipend than their counterparts in similar-sized towns such as Dover, Dummerston, and Guilford, and even nearby Brattleboro.

Resident Mary Ann Gardner, the immediate past School Board chairperson, said the board should keep its stipend, as it is needed by working people who serve the town. They use the money for such expenses as gasoline to get to and from meetings and a quick pizza here and there to help feed the kids when the schedule is just too tight to cook.

“I just feel that that is a lot of money,” said Starorypinski of the board’s stipend. “These are not jobs people take to make money,” but simply to serve the community, she said.

Hebert responded, “We’re not responsible for other boards being underpaid.”

According to Hebert, a school budget has three chances to receive approval from the voters: by state statute should voters defeat it three times, a default budget is imposed and the school is limited to spending 87 percent of its previous year’s budget.

For Vernon, the corresponding 13 percent reduction — about $550,000 — would come from the elementary school’s budget, he said.

Audience members asked which cuts the board would consider should it lose that 13 percent: the library? The lunch program? Transportation?

Board Member Deborah Hebert said the board hadn’t considered those contingencies as “we plan on our budget passing.” She added that voters defeated the original budget proposal by a handful of votes.

Following the meeting, Michael Hebert said that the state has put pressure on school boards to keep budget increases within 2 percent. Vernon has consistently met this goal.

Education financing law Act 60, however, affects school budgets whether the board keeps spending low or not, he said. Boards can cut their budgets and end up with a 13 percent increase in education spending regardless.

Hebert said the funding mechanism in Act 60 is “broken. We are paying for things we don’t get to vote on.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #252 (Wednesday, April 30, 2014). This story appeared on page A6.

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