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School Budget Hits Snags; Pre-K Delay Causes Confusion

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by Ed Sutherland

BARRE — It’s budget time in most school districts, and for Barre, the process is fraught with roadblocks, resignations and remembrances of an electorate eager to turn against the slightest hint of higher taxes. Little wonder John Bacon, superintendent of the Barre City Supervisory Union, describes the budget process at “a very precarious stage.” Bacon retires at the end of the year.

There remains “lots of work to do” before presenting a budget ready for the board or voters, Bacon said. Additionally, Gov. Peter Shumlin’s decision to allow state schools to delay pre-K  “causes us to rethink our plans.”

Norma Malone, vice chair of the Barre City Supervisory Union Board, gives a slightly more positive spin. The resignation of Business Manager Lynne Carpenter “made the budget development process a bit more challenging, but the administrators and business office staff have made an exceptional effort to fill the void and we should be on track to meet our deadlines.” Before leaving, Carpenter told the school board that the fiscal year 2016 budget would be $1,541,653, which is an increase of $54,224.84, according to a draft circulated in November.

One of the three accountants also resigned, leaving Bacon and Assistant Business Manager John Gray with the bulk of the budget work. Budgets for the Barre City and Barre Town elementary schools, along with Spaulding High School and Spaulding’s Technical Center and supervisory union, all must be completed by the end of the year.

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Budgets for the Barre schools are not ready for prime time, but draft figures show the impact the state’s new mandated (and then delayed) pre-K program may have on area schools. At Barre City Elementary, budget planners were considering a $400,000 increase to handle the extra students. Included in that amount was the addition of an extra classroom to accommodate the rise in preschool students the district must handle: from 90 to 120. Total expenditures were expected to reach around $792,000.

Although the universal pre-K program was expected to begin in July 2015, the governor delayed the effort for a year, partly due to the impact on school budget writing. On Dec. 10, the state learned it will receive $33 million to help assist early education programs.

Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe called the money “a real shot in the arm.”

A possible solution for Barre, which has seen two of its school budget attempts go down in flames during previous town meetings, is a budget surplus discovered by school auditors. According to Bacon, school accountants say there was a surplus of $472,000 in last year’s fiscal year from unexpected preschool revenue. The money could wipe out a $171,000 deficit from 2014 as well as provide a hefty $300,000 to decrease any spending increase for fiscal 2016.

But does the Barre board have access to the cash? The answer: it depends. On the side of using the cash to lessen the budget burden is Bacon. Supervisory Board Chairman Lucas Herring, though, isn’t so sure. In the middle is Sonya Spaulding, the board’s finance chief, who is holding out for a definite answer. Bacon said he would try to get a more firm answer from the school’s accountant.

Voters will decide whether to approve a final school budget on Town Meeting Day, this year scheduled for Tuesday, March 3.