Schools Say They Won’t Meet Challenges Goal

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(Host) Today Wednesday is the deadline for school districts to report on whether they can make the budget-cutting targets set by Vermont’s Challenges for Change law.

The goal was for schools statewide to cut a collective $23 million dollars of spending.

As VPR’s Susan Keese reports, some districts are saying that they can’t cut much deeper than they already have.

(Kids singing) ‘Bonjour Mes Amis’

(Keese) Principal Susan Whittemore points with pride – and frustration — to the improvements at Elm Hill School in Springfield.

The renovations were the result of a townwide vote to close Springfield’s oldest school and consolidate elementary grades into two buildings instead of three.

The efficiencies should save money in the long run. But right now the town is struggling: with a bond payment, increasing local poverty, and continuing state mandates to cut costs.

(Whittemore) "And our beautiful kitchen. This is a dream."

(Keese) But Whittemore notes that the school’s subsidized breakfasts and lunches are the only regular meals some students here can count on.

And she says the cheerful new kindergarten and primary classrooms are too crowded.

The struggle to cut costs has led to the loss of teachers and programs at a time when students need more attention, not less.

Elm Hill started the year with 32 homeless families. Whittemore recalls a night when she was working late….

(Whittemore) "I walk to the front of my building and I see four children and a mother soaking wet. And they have been living in a tent and it’s November. And the tent because we’ve had rain, has collapsed."

(Keese) Whittemore says school officials in Springfield prepared a budget incorporating the half-million dollars in cuts the Department of Education set as its share of the 2012 statewide budget reduction.

They decided the cuts would be devastating.

(Whittemore) "It’s the same message that I’m, hearing from Burlington all the way down to White River…that schools are really hurting."

(Keese) The Stowe School District, which has a very different demographic, is also saying, "no," to the Challenges for Change targets.

Stowe school board chair Cameron Page says the district has run lean for years because rising property values in town increased its obligation to the state’s education fund.

Page says her board made hard choices to hold its 2011 budget increase to half a percent.

(Page) "We had to cut middle school French, our college counseling program. A technology director position, of all things during this time when you should be building technology."

(Keese) No one has said yet what will happen to schools that don’t meet the targets.

Recently Governor-elect Peter Shumlin announced that he hoped to use $19 million from the federal government to offset some of the targeted $23 million in cuts.

But even with the $19 million, the Education Department says, that still leaves a $4 million shortfall — at least — for this year and many more hard choices on the horizon.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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