BARRE — There was no division during the fourth and final meeting of the Barre Unified Union School District’s transitional board Thursday night, but there was plenty of subtraction.
A creature of Act 46 and a merger that fueled four years of contention between Barre and Barre Town, the board unanimously agreed to recommend more than $640,000 in budget adjustments to the consolidated board that will be elected by voters in both communities next month.
At least some of the transitional board’s members will serve on the new nine-member board, which will be elected April 9 and is scheduled to take over operation of currently autonomous elementary schools in Barre and Barre Town, as well as jointly owned Spaulding High School, on July 1. While some had wildly different opinions about the merger that has now been imposed by the state, they were all on the same page when it came to the last draft of a budget for the new pre-K-12 district.
Sonya Spaulding predicted the draft budget, which called for spending $45 million to operate the three schools — $33 million after accounting for projected revenue – would be dead on arrival in Barre. A projected 8-cent rate hike wouldn’t fly and a proposal to add 13 new positions — none of them at Barre City Elementary and Middle School – would make the budget too tempting a target.
“The reality is this is not going to pass,” she said calling for substantive cuts, while expressing concern about dipping too deeply into cash reserves to blunt the projected rate hike.
Spaulding, who serves as chairwoman of the city’s school board, noted the new district won’t receive Act 46 tax incentives that she and others had hoped for, leaving the transitional board eyeing an out-sized increase in its first ever merged budget.
“We have to cut something,” Spaulding told Superintendent John Pandolfo. “I know it’s not what you want to do, but we have to cut something.”
Rebecca Kerin-Hutchins, a vocal merger critic who serves on the Barre Town School Board, echoed Spaulding’s suggestion that some of the new positions reflected in the draft budget could be “phased in” over time and that projected fund balances – a combined $860,000 based on latest estimates – shouldn’t be leaned on too heavily as a source of one-time revenue.
“We need to be very conservative and careful with the fund balance,” she said, citing uncertainty about federal revenue the districts currently rely on.
Pandolfo entered the meeting with a proposal to trim two cents from the projected 8-cent rate hike that is partly due to an anticipated drop in a key figure – the “yield” – over which districts have no control. That plan contemplated $147,500 in personnel-related reductions, trimming $44,000 from a significant increase in the line item for facility maintenance and using an unspecified among of surplus funds as a revenue source.
Board members agreed that was a start, but deeper cuts were needed and they couldn’t comfortably recommend using more than $200,000 of the projected fund balance as revenue.
Pandolfo’s proposal contemplated reducing the previously projected cost of two new positions – a counselor/therapist for the high school and a clerical position at Barre Town’s school and eliminating plans to hire a reading specialist for the high school. The combined savings of those adjustments was $97,500 and Pandolfo identified an additional $50,000 in indirect savings associated with grant-funded positions.
However, Spaulding, Kerin-Hutchins and others said more of the new positions should be eliminated, because the list was too long and – need aside – they feared backlash from voters.
The board agreed to eliminate five more of the new positions for a combined savings of $152,500. That list included plans to hire a technical integrationist and to pare-educators at Barre Town school and a pair of clerical positions – one at the high school and the other at Barre Town.
Board members were uncomfortable recommending any additional staff reductions – endorsing plans to hire a behavior specialist, a literacy interventionist and a school resource officer for Barre Town Middle and Elementary School, a new work-based learning coordinator and science teacher at Spaulding and an assistant special education director.
The board also agreed to recommend further reducing facilities maintenance by an additional $96,800 – pushing savings in that area to $140,800.
Though Chairman Paul Malone stressed the importance of moving toward the industry standard of budgeting $1-per-square-foot for maintenance – something the high school board he serves on had already done – he acknowledged the sharp increases that required for both elementary schools made it a likely candidate to be cut. He said budgeting 80-cents-per-square foot was a reasonable compromise that would yield nearly $100,000 in savings and still generate new money for maintenance in the merged district.
The combinations of cuts proposed by Pandolfo, those proposed by the board and $200,000 in surplus funds would trim 3 cents from the previously projected rate hike, while further reducing spending per equalized pupil in Barre where it is already among the lowest in the state.
According to Pandolfo education spending – total expenses less anticipated local revenue – would be $32,675,458, based on the budget the board is recommending.
Spending per equalized pupil would be $13,556, an increase of 4.32 percent. Those figures compare favorably to the previously projected spending per equalized pupil of $13,822 – a 6.36 percent increase.
Asked at one point whether the new district was “administration heavy,” Pandolfo said that was not the case.
“We are nothing heavy in my opinion at $13,500 a student,” he said, noting all three of the soon-to-be-merged districts have historically spent significantly less per equalized pupil than the state average, which this year is $15,520.
The board isn’t scheduled to meet again before the election of the new board on April 9. That board is scheduled to meet for the first time on April 11 and will have the final say on the budget is tentatively planned to be presented to voters in both community during a special election on May 14.