Tuesday January 29, 2013

TOWNSHEND -- A big jump in health-care costs is a major factor behind a nearly 4 percent increase in Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2014.

But even while cutting costs to balance the $6.8 million spending plan, school officials say they’ve still been able to make carefully targeted investments in areas including computer science, technology and professional development.

"We need to make a commitment to the future of our kids," said Emily Long, chairwoman of the Leland & Gray school board.

The board voted to adopt the budget last month. A public informational session on the spending plan is scheduled for 7 p.m. Jan. 30 at the high school, Principal Dorinne Dorfman said.

The school district’s annual meeting is set for 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5 in Leland & Gray’s gymnasium.

The following day, voters in the five union towns -- Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham -- will vote on the budget by Australian ballot.

Leland & Gray administrators saw a 3.5-percent increase in this year’s budget. And they’re looking at an even larger bump -- 3.9 percent -- in the fiscal 2014 plan.

Several factors are driving the additional spending. Chief among them is a 13-percent increase in health-care costs, said Frank Rucker, chief financial officer for Windham Central Supervisory Union.


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"Traditionally, it’s been something like 3 percent," Rucker said.

Also, a contract with teachers resulted in an average 2.8-percent increase in salaries for the next fiscal year, Rucker said.

Overall, Leland & Gray salaries are up $101,443 for fiscal 2014, an increase of 3.5 percent. Benefit costs top $1 million and are up 7 percent from this year’s budget.

A projected increase in enrollment also comes into play: Officials are expecting a larger seventh-grade class in the fall.

"You have to serve the needs of that class," Dorfman said.

It’s up to Dorfman and other Leland & Gray administrators to parcel out their resources to best-serve those students. Dorfman authored a detailed budget rationale to show how that is happening, including:

-- Reductions in counseling and science. Neither move results in a layoff; rather, manpower is being shifted to other areas as needed.

Some counseling hours will shift to administration. And the science change is due to the fact that a new Earth-science course did not fill as expected.

Also, science class-size limits were increased slightly after administrators studied the issue, Dorfman wrote.

-- Mathematics spending will increase. Officials will purchase textbooks for larger algebra and geometry classes and will buy computers to replace outdated equipment.

-- Higher enrollment in foreign-language and social-studies courses drove up spending.

In social studies, "students filled two new courses, economics (one section) and military history (two sections) and, for the first time, psychology needed two sections as well," Dorfman wrote.

Also, the school is spending $3,290 to replace 26-year-old Early American History textbooks.

-- Technology instruction is a top priority, officials said. Dorfman proposes adding a computer-science teacher to add two computer courses to the curriculum.

This will qualify students to earn a national certification that Dorfman characterizes as "unique in southeastern Vermont." Dorfman said she will pursue grant funding to support the additional part-time position.

-- There also is significantly more money in the budget -- $67,678 compared to $44,737 this year -- for professional development for teachers.

Dorfman called that investment "critical."

"Sustaining successful programs in literacy across the curriculum, science curricula and mathematics instruction is paramount for L&G’s transition to the higher-level Common Core state standards," she wrote.

-- Dorfman also cited a new emphasis on staffing a "peer-tutoring center" as an alternative to traditional study halls. She said 138 students have participated, resulting in 50 to 60 hours of tutoring weekly.

"It’s been very successful," she said. "We (previously) had it happening before and after school. This is the first year it’s going on during the school day."

Long said the Leland & Gray staff and board members are committed to making such investments when possible.

"If there was a way we could do what we’re doing for less, I promise you, we’d be all over it," Long said.

But a bigger school budget also has tax implications for residents of the union -- though educational tax rates vary from town to town based on enrollment and also are complicated by several state-controlled variables.

"The tax rate, unfortunately, does not follow the (school’s) spending patterns very closely," Rucker said.

That is borne out in town-by-town estimates of how much property owners will pay for Leland & Gray in fiscal 2014. The estimates represent only part of each resident’s education tax because they do not include taxes for elementary schools.

In Brookline, Leland & Gray-related taxes would decrease by slightly more than 3 cents in spite of the school’s increased budget.

The other four towns would see tax increases. The biggest is in Townshend, scheduled for a 10-cent jump. Second in line is Newfane, at just over 7 cents.

Jamaica’s taxes would rise by 3.6 cents, while Windham’s would increase by 4 cents.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.