A complex list of issues brought the community together for much needed dialogue as the district works to revise its third version of a school budget to present to voters next month. Brenda Balon (inset) speaks in support of the community’s schools.

Budget Meeting Captures Community Concerns

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Thursday April 20, 2017

Corey Burdick

In stark contrast to the quiet January budget meetings when the school board formulated the first proposed budget without much citizen question or input, an overflow crowd filled the F H Tuttle Middle School library on Thursday April 13, eager for dialogue. Many divergent viewpoints were represented over the course of the evening, including a number in support of Superintendent David Young, whose performance was questioned last week by some residents affiliated with the Rebel Alliance, a group who opposes the Rebel name change.

Enthusiastic applause followed statements of confidence from past school board members, the district’s administrative team, and 83 high school educators whose names were read following a statement of support made on their behalf by South Burlington High School teacher Jim Shields. Shields said the faculty strongly supports retiring the Rebel name and they reject the suggestion of no confidence for Young.

Comments from members of the public varied from support for the work of the board and superintendent to critique of communication and transparency surrounding both the budget and Rebel name decision process. Those opposing the budget had numerous reasons for doing so and not all of them had to do with the Rebel name change.

Jim Leddy, a 45 year resident of South Burlington admitted to voting against the budget, but has been opposed to the Rebel name for years. He said, “This is less about a budget, but looking at a community that is fragmented, faltering, and if we don’t stop this, failing. We are who we are because of who we are, not what we call ourselves.”

Resident Kelly Lord wondered if the board would continue to risk budget defeats by keeping money in the budget for the Rebel name change. She also made note of the petitions submitted to City Clerk Donna Kinville for a potential ballot item in opposition to the name change.

The biggest take away from the evening was that better communication would be needed in regard to the budget and other items affecting the community going forward. Despite budget meetings and outreach events held at the beginning of the year, one resident commented that, if the board had provided as much information regarding the budget process back in January as they had that night, they likely wouldn’t be facing a budget re-vote.

Following the public comment segment, School Board Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald, in an effort to better understand the concerns of residents who voted no on the budget, organized topics into several categories. Fitzgerald invited comment first from board members, then from the audience. The categories included sustainability/financial trends, labor negotiations, board and district leadership, and the Rebel name. Pervasive themes seemed to emerge despite the disparate categories including the need for transparency around decision making, confusion over property tax impacts, deferred maintenance and multi-year capital improvement trends, required vs. discretionary spending, and why rebranding the Rebel name didn’t happen, among many others.

After collecting the information on paper easels, Young made note of pertinent next budget development steps. Section 13-1304 of the city charter says that the voters continue to vote until a budget passes, or it reverts to last year’s budget. He proposed May 17 or 18 as potential dates for a budget re-vote so that he and his administration could work backwards on a timeline. How to better communicate and providing added clarity regarding the petitions from the city attorney as well as conferring with the school’s attorney, Bob Fletcher, are on Young’s to do list. Challenges for Young going forward include urgency around the need to issue contracts to staff and that in the absence of those, staff will begin looking elsewhere for jobs.

Furthermore, board members and the public wondered what a level funded budget would look like. Young explained that he would have to eliminate all of the proposed initiatives from the original budget along with an additional $1.1 million. Members asked for implications of such cuts to be outlined for example, if money for uniforms was eliminated, how many athletic teams would be sidelined? Young made note that the number of students who participate in co-curriculars is at 83 percent at the high school level and while not federally or state mandated, for him, it is of great importance to the student experience. Bridget Burkhardt wondered how removing teachers from classrooms would impact class sizes. Steve Wisloski also sought clarity around discretionary vs. mandatory spending.

Another wrinkle in these layered discussions involved new school board member Alex McHenry sending an e-mail to a Central School parent list prior to the second budget vote noting possible ramifications for the district if the budget did not pass. Fitzgerald allowed McHenry time to publicly explain his actions during which he apologized and said he would read up on the board’s policies pertaining to public communications as well as the board code of conduct policy. McHenry assured the board and public that this would not happen again.

The board meets on April 19 for their regular meeting where they will discuss the petitions that have been submitted as well as the budget process moving forward. You can find regular updates via the district website and RETN to view the meetings in their entirety.