Some schools face tough decisions under spending caps

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MONTPELIER — Some schools already operating on tight budgets are facing substantial budget cuts or tax penalties under controversial new spending limits.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has called for a repeal or suspension of the school district spending limits that are part of Act 46, a law passed last spring that encourages districts to consolidate with a goal of saving money through efficiency and providing equal education.

Districts that go over their cap will be double-taxed on every dollar above the limit.

In the Northeast Kingdom, the elementary school in Walden, which already operates on an austere budget, would have to cut $364,000 from its $2.7 million budget or face a tax rate increase of more than 40 percent.

Nearby Danville would have to cut $475,000 from its $6.4 million budget or be subject to tax penalties.

"It's counterproductive to what Act 46 asked us to do as far as providing equity in education," said Mat Forest, superintendent of the Caledonia Central Supervisory Union.

The supervisory union administration this week made some proposals for staffing cuts, reducing music and foreign language programs, and eliminating sports programs, as well as cutting some technology purchases and maintenance upgrades they felt could be delayed in Danville.

Walden, which already has some of the lowest per-pupil spending in the state, is looking at maintenance costs, freezing administration salaries and possible staff reductions. The small, rural school already has made cuts over time and now has a part-time nurse, part-time physical education teacher and no guidance counselor, Forest said.

"There's nowhere to go to cut in a school like that," he said.

"They've got really limited resources, and so when you start to cut into those programs you're getting into academic programs that impact children directly, so it's really an unfortunate situation," he said.

Ultimately both boards have accepted there's no way to avoid the tax penalty because they can't make those kinds of cuts to school programs without hurting students' education, he said.

Health care costs are rising 8 percent next year, and 80 percent of schools' expenditures are in salary and benefits, school officials say, so if big cuts are necessary, they would likely come out of staff.

"Really what it is, is it's due to costs outside of our control," Forest said. "We're looking at increased special education costs, health insurance rates, union agreements, increased tuition costs and declining student populations."

To stay under the limit, the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union is looking at eliminating two teaching positions and reducing another one. It's also considering reducing the amount of math instruction provided daily at Leicester school, said Superintendent Jeanne Collins.

"Since our schools, as well as most of the state of Vermont, have the most concern around math test scores, it will affect our ability to give high-quality math or give math the attention that it needs," she said.

The Legislative Joint Fiscal Office estimates that 127 school districts would be over the spending threshold, for a total of $9.5 million in tax penalties.

The Vermont School Boards Association, the Vermont Association of School Business Officials and other groups are urging lawmakers to repeal the limits quickly before districts finalize their budgets for Town Meeting Day votes.

The House Education Committee is looking at possibly raising the spending limits while the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee wants to repeal the spending limits and said the committee could vote out legislation next week.

"It looks like the penalties are actually causing tax increases, which was not the goal," said Democratic Sen. Ann Cummings.


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