Wednesday February 27, 2013

VERNON -- Vernon School Board officials have drawn up only one budget for the 2013-14 school year.

But they'll need two votes to get that budget approved at next week's Town Meeting due to a state rule that requires a split vote when spending reaches certain levels.

Board members are hoping voters will understand the reason behind the second vote, and they maintain the board has worked to keep costs down despite some rising expenses that are out of their control.

"This is the budget we feel we need," board Chairwoman Deborah Hebert said. "We've cut everything we can."

The board has developed a $4.29 million budget to operate the town's elementary school during the next fiscal year. That amount will be spread over two Australian Ballot votes on Tuesday.

The first will ask whether voters will approve nearly $4.2 million in spending, while the second asks those same voters to authorize another $95,212, "which is the remainder of the amount the school board has determined to be necessary."

The split vote is needed because the school budget meets two state criteria: The current year's spending per equalized pupil exceeds the state average, and overall spending in the proposed fiscal 2014 budget "exceeds the current year's spending, adjusted by an inflation index, plus 1 percent."

Vernon board member Mike Hebert, who also represents Vernon and Guilford in the state House, says the state regulation is "very difficult for voters to understand" and could leave the impression that the board is spending excessively.

Instead, board members argue that they are being as frugal as possible in adopting a spending plan that exceeds the current budget by 4.8 percent. They say they started with a fiscal 2014 budget that exceeded this year's spending by a full 10 percent.

"We had to go line by line," board member Kelli Lee-Allen said.

Some expenses, officials say, were unavoidable. That includes an anticipated 12 percent to 14 percent hike in health-care costs and another bump in special-education expenses.

"Special education, over the last three years, has increased in our school by over $100,000," Deborah Hebert said.

Board members did choose to authorize a new teaching position in the next budget. But officials said that's a response to rising enrollment.

"It would be difficult for us to meet the needs of our students without adding another teacher," board member Walter Breau said.

Principal Mark Speno estimated that Vernon Elementary's enrollment will rise from 151 to 158 in the fall, and he said that's a continuation of a trend.

"It's been rising slowly and steadily for the past three years -- not by drastic amounts," Speno said.

At the same time, board members said they were forced to decline a request for an additional paraprofessional position for financial reasons. And they made other cuts, including elimination of an annual appropriation into the school's capital plan.

The latter move alone saved more than $65,000, Mike Hebert said.

While saving money for capital needs is important, "it wasn't the time to ask the taxpayers to do that," he said.

The proposed budget estimates a tax-rate increase of about 6 cents for Vernon Elementary's share of the education levy.

In a separate article, board members also are asking for permission "to incur interest-free debt through the Green Mountain Power Evergreen Fund in an amount not to exceed $65,000 to be financed over a period not to exceed five years."

The plan is to overhaul the school's lighting. The efficiency measures -- which in some cases will include a reduction in brightness -- are expected to save the school $10,700 annually.

That won't be quite enough to cover loan payments. The first year's payment, which is included in the school's budget, is $10,900.

But Speno said that, since the lighting system has a life expectancy of at least 15 years, utility savings "easily" will eclipse installation costs.

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