Hartford cuts teachers as part of $2.1 million budget reduction

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-14-2024 8:33 PM

HARTFORD — The School Board approved a revised budget Wednesday that would cut 22 teaching and support staff positions to the disappointment of the teachers union.

Superintendent Tom DeBalsi noted that 16 of the positions are currently vacant due to teacher and staffing shortages. There is a possibility that layoffs could be mitigated by retirement and other departures, he said.

Despite efforts to target cuts in areas that would least directly impact students, “there is no way to cut $2.1 million from a school budget without cutting people,” he added.

The new budget has been reduced by $2.1 million through a combination of spending cuts and the use of a $680,000 surplus fund transfer. The total expenditure for next year’s budget is $51 million.

The board also voted Wednesday to go forward with a $21 million facilities bond proposal.

Voting on both issues is scheduled to take place by Australian ballot on April 15.

Nichole Vielleux, the president of Hartford’s teachers union, was disappointed that the union had not been consulted during the district’s budget discussions.

“We have to know that everything has been done to make sure the cuts are happening where we can tolerate them,” she said at Wednesday’s board meeting. “We want to be part of the conversation.”

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The cuts came in response to the property tax impact of the $52.4 million budget proposed in January. The estimated tax increases associated with that budget approached 40%, which DeBalsi called “unreasonable.” It would have been “disrespectful to ask the taxpayers of Hartford to fund that,” he said at Wednesday’s meeting.

On Feb. 19, the board voted to rescind its proposed budget and delay voting to allow time to make spending cuts. It instructed DeBalsi to reduce the budget spending so that homestead property tax increases for Hartford residents would not exceed 18.5%.

The revised budget will result in the planned 18.5% tax increase, which is “still a big ask,” DeBalsi said Wednesday.

Vielleux told the board that previous staff cuts have already made things difficult for teachers.

“The behavior is getting worse and worse,” she said. “We’ve had paraeducators punched and principals violently assaulted.”

Staff are “told to ‘F’ off on a regular basis,” she said, and all of that is draining. Teachers take increased numbers of sick days in response to stress, and combined with a shortage of substitute teachers and mental health support staff, that makes student behavior worse, Vielleux said.

While an 18.5% tax increase is scary, “operating in a building with less adults is also scary,” she said.

Though the union has asked to be part of budget conversations, Vielleux said it has been left out. When budget plans were being made, she said, “nobody asked the people (teachers and support staff) who make up over 80% of your budget.”

Instead, those conversations have been left to administrators. “We’re really at the mercy of our principals and what they think should be cut,” she said.

Teachers can be creative problem-solvers, she said: “Talk to us.”

The four board members present for Wednesday’s meeting, including new member Garrett Wilson, all voted in favor of the reduced budget. Peter Merrill was absent.

On the question of whether to eliminate or reduce the facilities bond, the board was more divided.

DeBalsi and the board discussed reducing the bond amount to roughly $6 million, which would be just enough to cover basic regulatory and compliance issues such as sprinkler systems, electrical panels and fire alarms. Addressing those issues would prevent buildings from possibly being shut down by the state fire marshal.

“Whether we like it or not, we have to make repairs,” Doug Heavisides, board member and District Facility and Planning Committee representative, said.

He spoke in favor of asking for the full $21 million bond, noting that the cost would be spread over 20 years.

”I wouldn’t want children or staff to work in a facility that potentially has major structural issues,” including a door-locking system that doesn’t work, he said. “This is reality. It’s got to be done.”

DeBalsi said a $21 million bond proposal would negatively impact voters’ decisions about the school budget. Vermont voters rejected nearly one-third of school budgets at this year’s Town Meeting Day on March 5.

“What I want and what I need are two different things,” he said. “I need the budget to pass.”

The board voted, 3-1, to proceed with the full $21 million bond, with Board Chairman Kevin Christie casting the lone dissenting vote.

A budget discussion and information session is scheduled for April 6 at 10 a.m. in the Hartford High School Gymnasium. Voting is set to take place on April 15 from 7a.m. to 7 p.m. in the Hartford High School Gymnasium.

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan@vnews.com or 603-727-3208.