Budget cut discussion on Hartford School Board agenda

From left, Hartford bowlers Hailey Rogers, Nara Gallagher and Kara Robinson listen to

From left, Hartford bowlers Hailey Rogers, Nara Gallagher and Kara Robinson listen to "The Star Spangled Banner" with their teammates and others from Fair Haven, White River Valley and Windsor in Claremont, N.H., on Feb. 4, 2023. Hartford has been without a local facility to bowl since the closing of White River Junction's Upper Valley Lanes and Games in 2013. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-26-2024 7:31 PM

HARTFORD — The School Board Wednesday night will address a revised budget that slashes teaching and staff positions and delivers a gut punch to the athletic department, eliminating four sports programs.

The new budget also postpones the search for a new superintendent until next year, walking back a plan by the board to allow the new hire to overlap with current Superintendent Tom DeBalsi’s last year at Hartford.

A $21 million bond proposal for building repairs and upgrades also is on Wednesday’s board agenda.

That bond, alongside the new budget, will go before voters at the polls on Monday, April 15.

Originally scheduled for Town Meeting Day, the School Board delayed Hartford’s budget vote in accordance with a law signed by Republican Gov. Phil Scott on Feb. 22 that allowed school districts to rescind and revise their budgets to reduce spending.

Hartford’s budget cuts come on the heels of a tumultuous budget season in Vermont as some schools rushed to make whatever cuts they could tolerate to mitigate unprecedented property tax increases. In Hartford’s case, residents were facing a 38% tax increase under the original budget, according to DeBalsi.

The School Board in February instructed DeBalsi to strip $2.1 million from the budget in order to hold the property tax increase to no more than 18.5%.

The board approved the new budget at its March 13 meeting. Because it has been approved by the board, it will go before voters on April 15 as is.

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The $51 million budget eliminates 22 teaching and staff positions and cuts bowling, alpine ski and snowboarding, and bass fishing from the athletic program.

In all, eight middle and high school coaching positions have been eliminated.

“Some of the positions that were reduced were not filled for FY24, due to personnel shortages,” DeBalsi wrote in a March 22 letter to Hartford families. “However, every position was necessary and the reductions will be felt across every school and program in the district.”

There was immediate pushback by Hartford’s teachers union against both the cuts themselves and the process that led to them.

“When budget plans were being made, nobody asked the people that make up over 80% of your budget,” Nichole Vielleux, the Hartford teachers union president, said at the meeting.

DeBalsi, however, defended the cuts at the time, saying they were made evenly “across the board.”

Vielleux later said by email that “not one administrator has been cut, and there is actually a line increase of $135,056,” for administrative salaries.

In a letter sent Saturday to families of student-athletes, Hartford Athletic Director Jeff Moreno itemized the cuts to his staff and programs, explaining that he was asked to cut more than $60,000 from the department’s budget.

In attempting to make the required budget reduction without cutting programs, “I was not successful,” Moreno said, listing the sports that had landed on the chopping block.

“We are committed to finding athletes from these teams a place to compete at neighboring schools if they wish to compete at a competitive level,” he said.

He closed by expressing fear that the revised budget may still fail at the ballot box, resulting in deeper cuts which would be “catastrophic to the excellence we have worked so hard to create in the athletic department.”

Wednesday’s board meeting will take place at 6 p.m. at the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center in White River Junction.

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