Hazen Board Clarifies, Reviews Budget Scenarios

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – After last Thursday’s public information session, the Hazen Union School Board met Monday night to address the feedback received. Unlike the information session, which overflowed the Google Meet’s capacity of 100 people and spilled into an unofficially hosted session, Monday night’s session drew a small group of people interested in hearing the board’s reaction and potential adjustments to the budget reflective of that feedback.

With two scenarios developed in response to the informational meeting, though, the board could not make a decision after nearly two hours of Executive Session. Chair Steven Freihofner said “We are going to take no action, we’re not going to have a vote because the board is not prepared to do so at this time. Instead, we will schedule a special meeting given the extreme time constraints.”

A first order of business due to a statutory January 15 deadline was setting the school’s tuition. Approximately 20 students incur tuition expenses to attend Hazen Union, whether because the town in which they live is in the service area but has no high school, or through school choice. In FY2021, tuition for Hazen Union was $16,500, which Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union (OSSU) Director of Finance Brittany Currie said was “kind of right in the middle” compared to neighboring school districts. Private schools Lyndon Institute and St. Johnsbury Academy were at the top end of the scale regionally in FY2021, at $18,890 and $18,500, respectively. Currie said she believed most schools had kept their tuition the same for FY2022, but noted that Lamoille South Supervisory Union had gone to $17,100 in FY2022, when it previously was $16,500. Lamoille North had, as far as she knew, kept its rate at $15,500. Board member Mike Metcalf proposed increasing Hazen Union’s tuition to $17,000, which the board unanimously approved. Currie said that the budget figures could be adjusted to see what change that $500 increase would make on the tax rates. The board also decided that fourteen students could transfer in or out of Hazen Union under Winooski Valley Regional Public School Choice Collaborative. The schools participating in that program in 2020 were Bellows Free Academy – Fairfax, Cabot School, Craftsbury Academy, Danville School, Harwood Union High School, Hazen Union High School, Lamoille Union High School, Montpelier High School, Northfield High School, Peoples Academy, Randolph Union High School, Spaulding High School, Stowe High School, Twinfield Union High School, U-32, White River Valley High School, and Williamstown High School.

Upon hearing the stakeholder feedback from last week’s meeting, Currie had come up with a second budget scenario that did not make cuts to arts programs, at least in terms of teachers. One point of clarification was an apparent $55,877 change to the Athletics Budget, which Victoria von Hessert said struck her as “one-sided” with almost every other department seeing cuts. Currie clarified that the increase is not an actual reflection of the costs, but rather a reconciliation. Before this budget, numerous aspects of the Athletics Budget had been put into other departments’ budgets, so the figure represents a reclassification of items into the correct place instead of an actual major increase.

Since the majority of the expenses between the two budget scenarios were staff-related, the board went into executive session, which Open Meeting Law allows to avoid discussing personnel details in public. After almost two hours, the board could not decide between what Freihofner called “the two realities: declining enrollment (revenue implications) and effort to avoid staff cuts (expense implications).”

The overall budget without the arts program cuts would be $6,556,806 and with the cuts $6,467,420, a reduction of 4.29% or 5.58% from FY2021, respectively.

The Hazen School Board will convene in a public meeting via Google Meet on Friday, January 15, at 2:30 p.m. to finalize the budget.