Woodstock Schools Might Turn to Buyouts Instead of Layoffs

Woodstock — Students and parents turned out in full force last night to speak out against the School Board’s proposed budget, which would cut as many as 12 staff members, including a Woodstock Union High School teacher who was named the state’s best math teacher in 2010.

“All of the students know that we have to make cuts,” Ainsley Wilding, a senior at the high school, told the board. “But it’s the cuts we’re making that are the problem.”

The board ultimately approved the budget proposal, but at the urging of the teachers union president, board members agreed to consider a buyout plan that would allow for staff reductions without basing the cuts solely on years of experience.

The budget proposal for next school year, which residents will vote on in March, totals just over $11.3 million, and it’s about $60,000 less than the current year’s spending plan.

Despite the slight reduction in spending, officials project a property tax rate increase of about 13 cents, to $1.68 per $100 of assessed value.

For a property assessed at $200,000, the rate would result in about $280 more in annual taxes.

According to Jay Leiter, the chairman of the board’s Finance Committee, declining enrollment and a newly negotiated teachers contract, which calls for raises of nearly 3 percent and higher health care costs, led to the proposed cuts.

“Even standing still, there’s a substantial increase in the budget,” Leiter said.

The positions targeted by the cuts, which cover both the middle and high school, were chosen mainly based off the teachers contract, which prizes seniority. Teachers with the least experience are generally the first ones sent packing.

“The decisions about how the cuts are made is largely based on recommendations of the administration, but in those recommendations they are incorporating guidance from the contract that was negotiated with the teachers,” Leiter said. “And there’s a heavy emphasis on seniority.”

Instead of slicing positions in departments that included math, art, physical education and counseling, Keri Bristow, the president of the teachers union, offered an idea to the board: put together buyout packages for the school’s longest-serving employees to both trim the workforce and keep the young blood in place.

Though the board passed the actual dollar value of the budget last night, members said yesterday that Bristow’s proposal would be considered and could be put into effect without changing the proposed budget.

There was one significant cut that went through without nearly as much resistance — a $40,000 technology initiative that had provided Netbooks to seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders over the past three years. The idea, according to those on the School Board, was to extend the program to 10th-graders for the next fiscal year.

“That is now no longer going to be possible,” said School Board member Roger Rivera.

The emphasis last night, as evidenced by a wealth of public pleas, was on the teachers, especially the ones who might still be laid off. The supporters stood up, spoke, sat down, and were applauded nearly every time.

Many spoke about Erin Danner, a math teacher at the high school who would lose her job as a result of the cuts. In 2010, Danner was named best math teacher in Vermont by the Vermont Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Last June, she was named the teacher of the year at the high school.

“Mrs. Danner is one of two reasons why I did so well on the SAT,” said Amanda Owen, who graduated in June. “One of two. She’s a teacher of the year in math in the state of Vermont. That’s saying a lot. Her position should not be eliminated.”

She sat down. Applause.

“She pushes us; she gives us extra time,” Wilding said. “And those are the teachers that we need to keep. The teachers that give us everything are the ones we need to keep.”

She sat down. Applause.

“This year, I’m not sure I could vote for this, and I’m not sure I could encourage other people to,” began Meg Brazill, a Woodstock resident whose daughter graduated the high school in June.

When she finished speaking, School Board Chairman Dwight Doton asked her to clarify whether she wouldn’t vote for the approved budget because it was too low or too high.

“The dollars are fine,” she said. “I don’t like how you got there.”

She sat down. Applause.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.