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The Valley Reporter
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Waitsfield, VT 05673

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Special education drives spending at Harwood Union



By Erin Post

Harwood Union's proposed 2007-08 budget calls for a spending increase of almost six percent, thanks in large part to spiraling special education costs.

The school is also contending with a growing number of students who need English language instruction, prompting a hike in funding for the school's English as a Second Language (ESL) program.

Harwood's proposed $11.2 million budget, which carries with it a 5.8 percent spending increase, goes to voters for their approval on Town Meeting Day, March 6. Two special articles are also up for a vote.

Despite the jump in overall spending, assessments in the five towns served by Harwood Union are not expected to rise accordingly.

State reimbursements for special education lessen the impact on local taxpayers, said school board chair Scott Mackey, keeping the average assessment increase across the five towns at 3.5 percent, roughly the rate of inflation.

If voters approve two special articles slated to be on the ballot, assessments would rise by an average of 4.4 percent.

The school hosts its annual meeting Saturday, February 24, at 10 a.m. in the school cafeteria, in preparation for Town Meeting Day.

This year, Harwood officials were tasked with balancing the rising cost of special education with other expenses in the $11.2 million budget, up from $10.6 million this school year.

The 2007-08 budget earmarks about $2.2 million for special education, an increase of about $250,000 in just one year.

Mackey said some students with autism and other serious disabilities must be sent out of the district for the special instruction they need. Costs can be high; in extreme cases, Mackey said expenses for one student may total upwards of $80,000 annually.

"By law we have to provide these services," he said.

When the necessary programs are not offered on-site, Harwood pays for transportation, and for the cost of special education services at other locations.

The state does provide significant help, although not enough to cover all expenses Harwood incurs. Various categories of state funding for special education are expected to total just over $1 million, according to the school's anticipated funds report.

In the general education budget, Harwood plans to eliminate the equivalent of two part-time teaching positions: One in the high school science department and one in the social studies department.

Mackey said retirements allowed the school to cut these positions from full time to half time next school year. Social studies course offerings may be affected by the staffing changes, Mackey said, although there is expected to be "no net loss in classes being taught in the science department."

A spike in the number of seventh-graders at Harwood and a growing number of students who need English language instruction prompted the addition of one and one-half teaching positions in the 2007-08 budget.

Mackey said Harwood has experienced an "amazingly sudden influx" of students who have come to the Waterbury area with their families through a refugee resettlement program.

In order to meet the needs of these students, many of whom hail from the Krasnodar region in Russia, the budget for ESL instruction is slated to increase from about $34,000 this year to just over $77,000 in 2007-08. The school expects to support a full-time ESL teacher next year as opposed to the one part-time position currently funded.

A middle school teaching position the school cut last year has been restored in the 2007-08 budget in an effort to decrease the average class size in the seventh grade.

In the long term, the school continues to plan for a shrinking student population.

From the 2005-06 to the current school year, Harwood's enrollment dropped by about 20 students, Mackey said. In another six years, enrollment may be down to around 700, from just over 800 now, if current trends continue.

Administrators are trying to lessen the impact on staff by cutting positions through retirement when possible, but layoffs may be inevitable.  

"We're going to have to look at overall staffing levels pretty carefully," Mackey said, adding that the middle school is likely to see the effect of declining enrollment first. Statistics show the number of families with young children living in The Valley is continuing to drop.

Because the school's food service program has operated at a deficit for the past few years, the school board allocated $20,000 in the 2007-08 to subsidize the cafeteria.

"We're continuing to look at why food service can't break even," Mackey said.

On the flip side, if Harwood gets a wood chip boiler online by next year's heating season, the school stands to save about $20,000 by switching from oil to wood chips.

Mackey said although Harwood is competing with a large number of other schools who also approved wood chip boilers this fall, administrators are hopeful they can get the necessary equipment in place by next winter.

Two special articles are also slated for the March ballot: One asks voters to approve spending $80,000 to repave the horseshoe-shaped bus loading area in front of the school and the other calls for spending about $75,000 on repairs and maintenance as part of a five-year program.


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