Since the school budget was voted down for the second time April 6, the school board has held two meetings; one dedicated to hearing community feedback regarding why the budget failed to win approval, and another to hear Superintendent David Young’s proposal for a third budget vote. The April 19 meeting once again saw the middle school library packed with residents seeking more information and an opportunity to express their views, both for and against specific budget items.
Young presented two budgets: one, identified as budget number 12, was recommended. Budget 13 showed deeper cuts that would need to be made in order to reach a level funded budget. Version 12 indicates a 4.96 percent budget increase over FY 17 and would result in tax decreases for both home and condo owners.
Key items removed from the proposed budget in the April 6 vote include funding for the Career Development Center partnerships, elementary instruction support staff, a contingency teacher, EEE interventionist, and a special educator along with administrative substitute coverage, and Central School playground upgrades. Other reductions include the SBHS rekey/lock upgrade, kitchen/cafeteria redesign, snow removal, district wide fencing for athletics, an additional three retirements, removal of funding for new uniforms related to the Rebel name change, and two buses (the lease would be reduced to one). The total listed possible reductions come to $1,308,725. This would result in a total budget of $49,303,885, a tax rate decrease of 1.18 percent.
The owner of an average priced home would see a tax reduction of $64 and the owner of an average priced condo would see a reduction of $43. With income sensitivity, these figures would go down even further.
In terms of staffing, budget 12 still includes an increase of 8.40 staff (over FY 17) for a total of 490.32 district wide positions. This number includes reductions that would be made for a re-vote. These would include the positions already noted: one administrator, .83 FTE CDC staff, .50 FTE communication coordinator, one EEE interventionist, and one ISN special educator.
In budget version 13, additional reductions could include four paraeducators, five interventionists, one quarter of co-curricular activities, a truck for maintenance, replacement of a lawnmower, and one bus. This would bring total reductions from the April 6 defeated budget down $1,801,640. The reduction could eliminate 15.51 teaching positions in this version of the budget and Young explained that it would be extremely difficult to achieve a level funded budget without exercising this option.
Prior to allowing for public questions and comments, the board had an opportunity to offer their perspective. Elizabeth Fitzgerald’s initial reaction was that the information presented, while valuable, was very detailed and that the administration needed to find a way to present the budget in a more succinct way. Fitzgerald suggested clearly spelling out what will and will not be in the budget. In addition, board members wanted more details regarding what level funding could mean to programs and the tax rate. Steve Wisloski and Alex McHenry, both parents of elementary age children, expressed concern over removing the contingency teacher from the budget, a position that has traditionally been kept in reserve, but used at the elementary level when necessary since this is where enrollment tends to fluctuate the most.
Questions also surrounded the removal of the $47,000 for changes to athletic uniforms, and since the Rebel name change is still slated to take place, whether this would affect where and in what competitions students could participate. Annually, $22,000 to $25,000 is budgeted for uniform replacements. Young explained that some students would only have one uniform rather than a set of two, for both home and away games, and he would work with the Vermont Principal’s Association to explain the circumstances. He did not anticipate it being an issue.
Ultimately, the board felt more specificity was needed in the area of programming cuts in the level funded budget, how much the budget would increase naturally due to inflation, and the result of teacher cuts on class sizes. Current enrollment figures provided by Young indicate several elementary classes projected for the 2017-18 school year are already reaching high numbers. For example, 25 students per class are currently indicated for the Orchard school fifth grade and 22 at Chamberlin’s fifth grade. Kindergarten is constantly in flux as well, almost until the beginning of the school year, which is where the contingency teacher has been utilized in the past.
After viewing the staff cuts, particularly to interventionists, several parents spoke up. One resident mentioned that two of her four children benefited tremendously from the assistance they received from the specialists in the South Burlington schools, such that they are both going to college as independent adults. Parent and city councilor Meaghan Emery spoke to the beneficial impact English Language Learner (ELL) specialists have in assisting teachers to build communities in classrooms where students do not speak English as their primary language.
Another resident spoke to students’ recent participation in the Vermont State Science Fair where a large number of South Burlington students participated and won numerous awards. The reason South Burlington was overrepresented at the fair was due to the extra work teachers did to help them get to competition.
In terms of areas for improvement, some residents wondered about education outcomes and if the budget price tag was resulting in better test scores or more competitive college entrance. A local tax professional questioned educators’ health insurance premiums and negotiations and suggested this as an area where savings could be achieved. Without question, confusion around the negotiation process and how this does and does not impact the budget is a point the board will have to work to clarify.
Several high school students lent their voices to the conversation as well. Liam Lustberg implored those voting against the budget due to the Rebel name change to put their “personal political ideologies aside.” He asked people to consider if the name change was more important to them than programming cuts that directly impact students, such as jazz band and the arts, since arts and music programs are typically the first areas to see reductions.
Fitzgerald wrapped up the topic by noting the common thread among comments for and against the budget: people did not want to see programming harmed. She thanked the public for the robust conversations that have ensued over the past month and hoped for the same level of participation in the future; particularly when the budget development process begins annually in October.
A special meeting will be held Friday, April 28, at 7 p.m. to discuss the budget options further, with no action planned. The board will also work to address concerns brought up by residents regarding why they voted against the budget. Board action on a budget is warned for the board’s May 3 meeting and a date for the next vote would be determined then. You can stay up to date and review the latest budget information via the district website as well as RETN to view meetings in their entirety.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick,Correspondent