Guest Column: 2016-17 Champlain Valley Union High budget discussions

By members of the CVU Communication Committee

The holidays marked the beginning of budget season for our local towns and schools in the CSSU, including CVU. In November, we began our budget discussions informally, gathering information from district level administrators. In addition, we identified members of our various communities who were willing to serve as Budget Buddies for this year’s round of meetings.

In an effort to continue to keep the community informed, the CVU Communications Committee respectfully submits this article focused on the nature of our budget discussions. The article, organized as a Q and A, addresses the issues we are grappling with as we balance our commitment to providing high quality learning experiences, while considering the needs of our community partners.

Please note, given the submissions timelines of our local newspapers, this article reflects our work to date, including three formal meetings; we plan to finalize our budget recommendations on Jan. 19.

What are the particular fiscal challenges associated with this year’s budget?

The 2016-2017 baseline budget (the budget needed to continue all of this year’s programs into next year) after accounting for increases in inflation rates for ongoing goods and services, is showing a modest increase of just over 3 percent from the previous year’s budget. This growth is due primarily to already-committed increases to salaries and benefits, which comprise more than 75 percent of the CVU budget, including a projected 7.9 percent increase in health insurance costs and a previously negotiated agreement with the teachers union that includes an average 3.25 percent salary increase.

Additional challenges to the budgeting process this year include addressing state-mandated requirements to implement Personalized Learning Plans, and the provisions of Act 46, a state legislative act passed last year to contain state education costs.

How does Act 46 impact this year’s budget work?

Act 46 is first and foremost a bill that encourages the merger of local school districts, which is expected to eventually result in lowering education costs statewide. As the work of consolidation will take several years, however, the legislature addressed the public’s immediate concern with escalating property taxes by including in Act 46 an additional provision. This provision adds new penalties for community taxpayers if they approve school budgets that exceed an “allowable growth percentage” (AGP) on spending per equalized pupil that is specific to each district. (The AGP is back-computed by limiting the increase in statewide education costs to 2 percent.)

The AGP for the CVU School District is 2.39 percent. (For reference, the actual growth percentage in spending per equalized pupil at CVU for the last two years was 1.7 percent and 3.3 percent.) Complicating matters, however, is a recent decline in student population at CVU; a trend that has been occurring statewide. While current projections indicate an eventual leveling off of enrollment at CVU, in order to avoid the tax penalty during this budget round, CVU’s budget can grow no more than 1 percent next year (in contrast to the 3 percent needed to maintain all current programming). This means that the 2016-2017 baseline budget must be reduced by at least $577,000.

What options are being considered to address these challenges?

To achieve this necessary reduction, the Board is considering downsizing teaching staff in English, Wellness and World Languages (including the elimination of Chinese) by increasing class sizes and re-assigning teaching responsibilities, eliminating support for the gymnastics program, and reducing non teaching staff in guidance, library and administration. In addition, the board is anticipating some savings associated with retirements. CVU administrators have identified ways in which state-mandated Personalized Learning Plans can be implemented without additional resources through the modification of existing programs.

What would you hope the take away message of this article to be?

CVU is considered to be one of the best high schools in the state of Vermont, having strong educational outcomes and high graduation rates. At the same time, CVU has kept spending per equalized pupil below the state average. A tension exists, however, between reducing staff while simultaneously increasing staff responsibilities. And, while a decline in student population certainly provides opportunities for tightening our collective belt, it doesn’t easily translate into equivalent staff reductions, which is the heart of our school. The challenge in this year’s budget is to understand where we cross over from being penny-wise to pound-foolish as we consider dismantling programs through reductions needed to meet a spending target set by Montpelier.

The CVU School Board Communications Committee includes school board members Lia Cravedi and Kim Schmidt and community member Susan Grasso.