Thursday December 13, 2012

BELLOWS FALLS -- Two important programs within the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union will be protected in the 2013-14 school budget and are among the reasons the figure has increased more than 5 percent from the previous year.

School Superintendent Chris Kibbe said Early Essential Education (EEE), for 3- and 4-year-olds, and three early education centers in the area, for children in kindergarten or first grade, have seen a hike in staffing -- mostly classroom aides. This increase came at a cost and contributed to the 5.5 percent increase in the 2013-14 school year budget, which was approved by the WNESU Board of Directors Tuesday night.

Kibbe told the Reformer the approved budget is $3,041,289.91.

WNESU Board Chairman Jim McAuliffe said the programs are vital to the community, and EEE specifically has helped better prepare children for kindergarten since it was started. He said he feels it is an appropriate budget.

The money will now be allocated to the six schools in the WNESU’s four districts -- Rockingham, Westminster, Athens and Grafton.

Kibbe said $128,272 for the early education centers -- in Bellows Falls, Athens and Westminster -- is being funded out of the supervisory union. He and McAuliffe explained, however, that costs are not the only reason the budget is increasing. They said local funding is seeing a spike because a pool of surplus Medicaid funds that previously financed the centers is now largely depleted.

"This is the last year, currently, that we will have money in the pool," Kibbe said. "We do bring in Medicaid money every year, so that’s part of the way we’ll fund it. But we are also starting to have to fund it at the local level."

Another reason for the increased budget is that the health insurance, through the Vermont School Board Insurance Trust, is going up about 13 percent. Kibbe said there will be a 5-percent increase in the share each employee pays, which will have a sizable impact on all the individual school boards’ budgets.

The superintendent said the bump is unfortunate but inevitable. He just hopes the new system works better than the current one. He said all the SU’s entities are "grandfathered" and can stay in VSBIT until 2017 because it has not changed health plans.

Kibbe said the SU already is over last year’s figure for health insurance by $64,430.37 and $123,148.16 for salary, which means it is starting in the hole.

Salary increases have gone up as a result of a contract settlement between the WNESU boards’ negotiating committee and the local teachers’ union a few months ago. The process divided the educational community for a year and a half before a compromise was reached.

Another reason is that an outside professional brought in for a federal special education grant had to be paid with local funds.

"Budgeting is a best guess and you base it on your current status. And people come and go every year and sometimes the people that go are expensive and the people that come are less expensive, so you actually end up saving some money, which is nice," Kibbe said in his WNESU office. "A couple of our districts were in that position but in the SU we weren’t in that position, so when I say starting in the hole I mean with our existing staffing, it’s already $123,000 over the previous year’s budget."

He said he is not yet sure how the increased budget with affect tax rates but it will greatly depend on the budget decisions made by the districts’ boards. He said all those budgets must be completed within the first two weeks of January.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.