VERNON -- Earlier this week, Vernon town officials unveiled a proposed fiscal 2015 budget that included some deep cuts due to the pending closure of Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.
But Vernon Elementary School’s proposed budget includes no major reductions, leaving some voters wondering why.
At a public forum Wednesday, board members said Vermont’s educational-funding system -- which collects and redistributes tax money in an attempt to equalize school spending -- led local school officials to stop relying on the power plant some time ago.
"Essentially, Yankee came off our grand list years ago," board member Mike Hebert said. "Over the years, we have been making reductions and doing long-range planning."
Hebert added that, when it comes to budget-cutting, "we’ve been doing that for a number of years. But it’s difficult to see, because it’s been a slow, gradual process."
Vernon Elementary’s budget, which is subject to an Australian Ballot vote March 4, is proposed at $4.4 million -- up 2.5 percent from the current year’s budget.
With about 40 residents in attendance Wednesday evening, board members pointed out that direct elementary spending actually is down by 0.10 percent.
"And that’s pretty much what we have the most control over," board Chairwoman Mary Ann Gardner said.
"We did level-fund," she added. "We actually had a couple of decreases where we could."
Vernon Elementary’s per-pupil spending is, in terms of other area schools, "medium and mid-range," said Jim Kane, business administrator for Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.
"At one time ... Vernon was pretty high. One of the top in the state (in per-pupil spending)," Kane said. "But over the course of time, due to various factors, Vernon has dropped substantially."
Officials made a similar argument in terms of the school’s manpower.
Hebert said the elementary’s staffing is "pretty much in line with what the national average is." And he said the school’s 15-to-1 student-teacher ratio is much higher than the state’s 9-to-1 student-teacher average.
Over time, the number of teachers at Vernon Elementary -- once at 15 -- has declined to 10. To meet student needs, Hebert said, the school has hired more paraprofessionals at a lower wage than teachers.
"All of our (paraprofessionals), at this point, have a direct function in our educational process," Hebert said.
There were some noted increases in the school’s budget, including a higher Windham Southeast Supervisory Union assessment and a 29-percent jump in workers’ compensation insurance.
Overall, teachers’ salaries are up, as are health-insurance costs.
"We’re tied to those numbers," Gardner said. "Those numbers are what they are until we get a new contract."
With personnel costs difficult to cut, Hebert said the board is trying to bring down expenses associated with the school. There has been an investment, for example, in making the building’s lights much more efficient.
"We wanted people to know that we’ve benefited from that program," Hebert said. "The investment is going to pay itself back over three years."
Also, officials are looking into the possibility of partnering with a private developer in a solar array that could reduce the school’s utility bills.
"That’s where our focus really is -- where we can reduce our fixed costs in the operation of the building itself," Hebert said.
However, the board also chose to propose a $44,500 capital investment in fiscal 2015 after forgoing such an allocation in the current year’s budget.
Suggested capital expenses include $10,000 for the school’s heating system; $10,000 for carpeting; $2,500 to put toward a tractor; and $22,000 for computers.
The latter line item will cover 20 new computers for teachers and staff, officials said. The school’s current computers are five years old.
"They’re starting to show their age," board member Walter Breau said. "So this is the normal replacement of the computers."
That size of that allocation drew some criticism from the crowd, as did officials’ acknowledgment that the school funded the purchase of MacBook Air laptop computers for school board members.
School records show that the $4,528 purchase, which included software for the board’s four computers, drew $3,500 from the technology line item in the current year’s budget. The remainder came from the school’s "1 percent" funding.
Gardner and Hebert defended the expense, saying the MacBooks are not for board members’ personal use.
"We have them to use. But they’re the school’s property," Hebert said.
He added that the computers allow the school board to use "far less paper" and to operate more efficiently.
"Over time, they do pay for themselves," he said.
Other questions at Wednesday’s forum included inquiries about teachers’ salaries and benefits; transportation; and enrollment, both current and projected.
Principal Mark Speno said the elementary’s enrollment was 151 last year and has risen to 159 this year. Next year, 17 students are expected to enter kindergarten in Vernon, followed by 24 the year after that.
But Speno noted that "the unknown is how many of those families will move because of VY."
Officials said there are currently about 20 Vernon students who are affiliated with Yankee employees.
"My first estimate was far higher," Hebert said. "I thought it would be a far greater impact to the school."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.