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Shifts Squeeze Woodstock Schools

Voting on the Woodstock Union High School District #4 budget will take place by Australian Ballot in each town on Tuesday, during Town Meeting. Budgets for elementary schools in the district’s six towns will be decided on a town-by-town basis.

Woodstock — Cost-saving moves in the face of declining enrollment have led the Woodstock Union High School and Middle School board to propose a budget that cuts nearly a dozen staff members and teachers.

The proposed secondary school budget for the upcoming fiscal year is $11.3 million, about $62,000 less than the current year. However, if the budget is passed, the tax rate related to the union high school district would become $1.68 per $100 of valuation, a 13-cent increase from the current year’s.

Both falling enrollment numbers — a trend that has continued for more than a decade — and fewer federal dollars caused the shifting budget and tax rate, said Jay Leiter, the chairman of the WUHS School Board’s finance committee.

“It’s certainly a good faith effort to stay within a budget range that we’ve been in in the past,” Leiter said.

But the fact that educators are on the chopping block ruffled feathers of Woodstock students and teachers, who came to a School Board meeting last month to voice their concerns with the cuts.

Keri Bristow, the teachers union president, offered an idea to the board: Offer buyout packages and thin the workforce by letting older teachers leave.

“Ultimately, decisions were made, particular positions were selected to be cut and we are all dealing with the outcome of these decisions,” Bristow said at the hearing. “We are not disagreeing with the finance committee or the School Board on the decision to cut spending.”

Because the teachers contract, a new version of which was agreed upon in October, stipulates that less experienced educators get laid off before more seasoned ones, teachers such as Erin Danner, who was named Vermont’s math teacher of the year in 2010, would lose their jobs under the proposed budget.

After several weeks, the board rejected the union’s plea. Leiter said the board is simply following the rules when it comes to who, specifically, is affected.

“That’s totally driven by the teachers’ wishes,” he said. “Our wish would be to match the best teachers with the students who need them. That’s not really permitted in the contract.”

However, the teachers union was disappointed that an agreement couldn’t be reached.

“We are disappointed and really thought there would be an offer, as the board asked us to give them the proposal,” Bristow wrote last week in an email from Panama, where she was with a school group.

Eleven teachers would be affected by the cuts, Bristow wrote.

Like many Vermont school districts, enrollment numbers have dropped significantly over the past decade-plus in Woodstock. At the high school level, the number of students went from 430 in 2004 to 394 in 2013, an 8.4 percent drop.

“Over the last 10 to 15 years, there’s been a substantial decline,” Leiter said.

That decline has caused the district to have student-teacher ratios below the state recommendation, Leiter said, so cutting positions would bring the school back to state-recommended levels while also producing about $325,000 in budget savings.

He said that, on average, the school has between 13 and 17 children per teacher. The state recommends anywhere between 15 and 25 students per class, depending on their grade level, he said.

One-sixth of the district’s students come from outside of the district, bringing with them tuition money.

“We’ve done whatever we can to attract students, and I think that the pool of attractable students is also declining,” Leiter said. “This was going to happen sooner or later, and it just happened to come together this year.”

Projected K-12 tax rates per $100 of assessed value in each town have Barnard at $1.45, Bridgewater at $1.66, Pomfret at $1.68, Reading at $1.64, Killington at $1.55 and Woodstock at $1.65.

Under those projected rates, all six towns would see tax rate increases, from as little as 5 cents (Killington) to as much as 15 cents (Bridgewater).

Those numbers are based on a projected base per-pupil spending rate of $8,915, which could change if the statewide school property tax goes up. Last week, the Vermont House approved the increase, which would go to 94 cents from 89 cents per $100 of assessed value. The state Senate still needs to weigh in on the bill.

However, when Windsor Central Supervisory Union Finance Director of Finance and Operations Meredith Austin did the math for the high school’s tax rate, she found that the proposed base rate — a $200 increase — wouldn’t affect voters in the school district.

“If you rework the math, it doesn’t really change the projected tax rates we’ve done,” Austin said. “It almost negates itself. It reduces the high school rate by a fraction of a penny.”

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