School budget to include cutbacks1/8/09

Staff reductions a possibility

Jan. 8, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Cuts are imminent for the Williston School District, and could impact the number of teaching assistants or classroom educators. The School Board heard from the administration last month about which areas could be reduced to save more than $350,000.

While District Principal Walter Nardelli said the possible cuts were preliminary and the cost savings were only estimates, the most likely reductions would be in the form of a teaching assistant, a classroom teacher and a paraeducator, among others. The cost savings is estimated between $357,000 and $388,000, though the administration has also proposed several budget additions (see story on page 5).

Nardelli said while none of the cuts were easy decisions, he understands the necessity of keeping costs down in regards to Act 82 and the faltering economy.

“With this, you’re seeing that we can cut back,” Nardelli said.

In order to avoid the two-vote penalty of Act 82, the School Board asked the administration last month to find places where $325,000 could be cut from the budget. Cutting that amount would put the school right under the Act 82 requirement.

Act 82, enacted by the Vermont Legislature last year, aims to keep school districts from overspending. If a district exceeds the percentage increase, determined by the average per pupil spending across the state, voters must approve a second article on Town Meeting Day for a full school budget.

By cutting $350,000, the School Board hopes to get Williston’s budget to about $16.44 million,  an increase of 3.03 percent from the 2008-2009 budget.

Nardelli said one teaching assistant out of 18 could be cut at a savings of $25,000. He said all teaching assistants help supervise students during lunch and recess. A paraeducator could take that place in the lunchroom, Nardelli said.

The catch is that 91 percent of a paraeducator’s time in the classroom is reimbursable by the federal and state government by up to 50 percent in salary. By reducing that time in the classroom, the district would not get as much money back from the government, Nardelli explained.

Cutting a paraeducator position could save the district another $25,000, Nardelli said. He cautioned that the loss of the position would mean a reduction in aid to individual students in classes. Nardelli said paraeducators are essential in identifying students having trouble in certain subject areas.

But because the government reimburses schools a portion of a paraeducator’s salary, it would also mean the loss of some revenue to the district, Nardelli said. He wasn’t sure what that loss would be.

Health benefits for teaching assistants could also be cut at a savings of $140,000, Nardelli said. It’s the biggest single savings the administration sees as a possibility for cuts, and one that does not impact students directly, he said.

The district could also save money — $60,000 to $90,000 — by eliminating a classroom teacher position and its benefits, though Nardelli said that possibility would hopefully take place through attrition.

“It would be a situation that if a veteran teacher retired, they wouldn’t be replaced,” Nardelli said.

The downside is that class sizes may increase, he said. Board Vice Chairwoman Holly Rouelle, who also teaches kindergarten in Essex, was not pleased to hear about the possible loss of a classroom teacher.

“I really don’t want to see class size go up,” Rouelle said. “I’d rather see three (teacher assistant positions) go rather than one classroom teacher.”

Other cuts could come from the school’s tuition for outside placement program, in which the district helps pay a student’s tuition at a specialty school. Nardelli said if there are no students needing outside placement, then the district would free up $35,000.

“But if there is a student, then we would have to spend it,” Nardelli said.

A bus run could also be cut at a savings of $24,000. Busses would be near capacity, Nardelli said, and it was too early to determine which run would be cut and consolidated by other bus routes. Along the same lines, fuel costs have gone down and are expected to save the district $16,900 next year, even if prices rise above $2 a gallon for gas, he said. Costs were originally estimated at prices around $4 a gallon.

The School Board hopes to hear more public comment in regards to the possible cuts and is asking residents to turn out at its next budget meeting. The meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 8 from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. at Williston Central School.