By Lee J. Kahrs, The Reporter
BRANDON— There are as many opinions as taxpayers regarding a proposed Otter Valley Unified Union School [OVUU] budget that offers the consolidation of schools and programs to save $500,000.
After several weeks of ideas, forums and fact finding, on Jan. 10 the OVUU board approved a proposed budget that slashes $500,000 in the face of an education fund shortfall of $80 million with a projected tax rate increase of 7 to 9 cents, assuming a statewide education increase of 3 percent.
Last year, the state decided to prop up the current FY2018 budget with about $47 million in “one-time” funds that were taken primarily from an end-of-year surplus and an education reserve fund.
The state also underfunded school districts due to increased health care costs, in OVUU to the tune of $314,000 less than what the district previously received.
But an ongoing issue facing school districts across the state for the last decade is falling enrollment. Costs are not dropping at the same rate, due to health insurance and salary expenses – just the classroom size. Therefore, tax rates have increased each year to close the gap.
Declining enrollment and the education fund deficit forced the OVUU board to make drastic changes. The budget plan calls for the reconfiguration of the district’s three small schools, Leicester, Whiting and Sudbury, moving the Caverly Preschool to the Lothrop Elementary School [in Pittsford], and creating multi-age classrooms at Lothrop.
There are also a number of staff reductions, based on those reconfigurations and attrition, where teachers are retiring or leaving the district and not being replaced.
Parents like Nancy Dellamonte of Sudbury are very upset by the OVUU proposal to split K-3 and grades 4-6 between the Sudbury School and the Leicester Central School, and putting the preschool in the Whiting School, which may also become the town library.
Dellamonte’s daughter already moved from Sudbury to Whiting school after the schools were reconfigured following the Act 46 consolidation of the district. Now she believes her daughter would have to move to Leicester under the new plan.
Dellamonte read a very strongly worded letter into the record at the Jan. 10 meeting voicing her dissatisfaction. She said she and her family moved from an affluent community in Westchester County, N.Y., to Sudbury in 2016 and chose Sudbury because of the school. She said they did not protest when their daughter had to change schools last year, but the current proposal is too much.
“Our children are not a commodity to pack up and shuttle around at your whim because it looks good on paper,” she wrote. “Children need stability, consistency and non-stressful environments to learn and thrive. Sadly, for many of our children, school is the most stable, consistent, nurturing and non-stressful environment in their lives and you have destroyed that.”
Dellamonte added that although she owns a lakefront home in Hubbardton, she chose to settle in Sudbury because of the school. She said the board is not enticing families to move to the area if they continue making children move from one school to another, adding that paying higher property taxes to fund education is a landowner’s responsibility.
“We need to support and pay for our schools during the cycles of low and high enrollments,” she wrote. “No one likes taxes or taxes to be increased, but education and schools are paramount for our communities and if that is how we need to keep our schools open, then we must bite the bullet and do it. … As a home- and landowner, there is nothing more important that I can pay for than education in my community.”
In closing, Dellamonte called for the board member’s resignation because they “do not have our children’s best interest in mind.”
The Reporter sat down with Dellamonte for a follow-up interview, and she stood by her letter to the board.
She was asked if she had an alternative plan to cut the necessary funding from the budget in order to keep the small schools as they are and still keep tax rates from rising.
Later, she replied in an email that she would not cut sports or any other programs to save costs. “We must find a way to stop cutting our school budgets,” she wrote. “Education is too important. … We are doing our children a great disservice by continually cutting education budgets. We are putting them at a great disadvantage in the world and it has to stop. Our governor and our School Board are wrong to continually cut our school budgets. We need to fund our schools and educate our children so they can compete for jobs on the world market.”
Wayne Rausenberger, 70, is retired and lives with his wife, Kathy, in Brandon. He attended the public meeting in December on the first set of budget “Big Ideas” proposed by Superintendent Jeanné Collins. The outcry from parents and staff members at that meeting convinced the board to scrap a plan to merge the Neshobe and Lothrop Elementary Schools.
“I came away with the feeling that, yes, the board is between a rock and a hard place because nobody will be happy with what they decide,” he said. “But the people at that meeting gave me the feeling that they voted for Act 46 but still think they have local control. If you live in a small town, you have to live with the reality that either your school is going to close, or it’s going to consolidate with another school.”
Rausenberger is no fan of Act 46, the school consolidation legislation under which the OVUU district was formed three years ago. He said the taxpayers were “sold a bill of goods” in exchange for tax incentives that were never properly explained.
“These budgets, you don’t even know how much you’re going to pay until you vote for it,” he said. “It’s a backward system.”
Rausenberger was critical of parents who urged the board at the December forum to wait a year before consolidating the small schools. “All you’re doing is kicking the can down the road,” he said.
As for Dellamonte’s assertion that homeowners step up and pay higher taxes for the sake of education, Rausenberger said she was being unrealistic. “She doesn’t care if they raise her taxes, but if they’re raising her taxes, they’re raising mine,” he said, “and I don’t want my taxes raised so your kid can have a class with six kids in it.”
He also took issue with the assertion that changing schools and having longer bus rides are detrimental to kids. “That’s a bunch of B.S.,” he said, adding that he changed schools four times [as a student] and then attended a split-session high school that had him getting home at 5:30 each night.
“Don’t tell me they have to get up a half hour earlier,” he said. “You chose to live in these towns. You never should have voted for Act 46, then you could have kept your school.”
In the end, Rausenberger said he wishes there could be a public vote to repeal Act 46, and that this budget would not get his vote. “There is no way in hell I’m voting for this school budget,” he said. “I may never vote for another school budget again.”
Hannah Sessions owns and operates Blue Ledge Farm in Leicester with her husband, Greg Bernhardt. They have lived in Leicester since 2000 and have two children who are now students at Otter Valley.
Bernhardt is currently a member of the OVUU board. Sessions was on the Leicester School Board for 10 years and on the Rutland Northeast School Board from 2011 to 2015. She also served on the Act 46 study committee that looked into the nuts and bolts of creating the OVUU School District in 2016.
Sessions was at the Jan. 10 OVUU board meeting and voiced her support of the proposed budget but said in an interview Tuesday that she understands how difficult the situation is.
“I think when we went down the route of Act 46, everyone thought it would be a magic bullet and our financial problems would go away,” she said. “But in my mind, Act 46 is working, with the ability to now move kids around and enhance programming, we’re saving money and equalizing student opportunities.”
Sessions also said that any desire for local control over schools evaporated well before Act 46. “People had the illusions that we had local control, but we didn’t,” she said. “Everything was a mandate from the state.”
Sessions added that she understands particularly what Dellamonte and other parents in the small school towns are feeling but said the issues of falling enrollment and costs have been issues for years.
“We saw all of these problems coming,” she said of her time on the Leicester School Board. “We saw the storm on the horizon. We tried to consolidate years ago, but ironically, the state was subsidizing small schools and paying them to stay small. We now have a board that is just removed enough to make these hard decisions that the super-local boards couldn’t make.”
She said that familiarity makes being on a school board more difficult now than ever before. “It’s extremely hard to make change happen when it affects you neighbors, your friends, even yourself. It’s too close, and then our children’s education is affected by our loyalty to the status quo. It makes being on the school board an incredibly thankless job because it’s very personal.”
Sessions said she understands that the proposed changes will be difficult for all involved, but that in the end, “we will be better for it.”
“I see [the consolidation] as maintaining the experience my kids had when there were 80 to 90 kids in the school,” she said. “By consolidating, you are maintaining the educational opportunities. I hope that everyone can see that we all want the same thing, with is the best possible thing for our students.”
When Sessions kids went to Leicester School in 2007, 90 kids were enrolled. Now, enrollment is around 40 students.
By Lee J. Kahrs, The Reporter