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Montpelier School Board Meets with Opposition Upon Asking for a 0 Percent Increase on 2014-15 Budget

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by Page Guertin

Montpelier School Board members recently tasked the administration with proposing a zero percent increase in the next year’s budget, but the request met with opposition from both parents and administrators. After intense discussion at their meeting Oct. 15, the board voted on three top priorities to forward to the school administrators for consideration in upcoming budget discussions. School facilities, music and the arts, and justifiable student/staff ratios received the most votes from among over 20 priorities hashed over by board members, as primary issues for consideration in development of the 2014-1015 school budget.

The decision didn’t come lightly.  Member Michele Braun led the group through the process of identifying and categorizing priorities; 23 were identified, including student outcomes, foreign languages, attracting and retaining tuitioned students, additional staff needs, Community Connections, a broad offering of extra-curricular activities, and additional revenue sources.  Those items were sorted into those that affected the 2014-1015 school budget directly and those that were important issues to be addressed outside the budget process, leaving 10 priorities from which the top three were selected.

The board also determined to request three budgets from the administrators, one at zero percent increase, one at 3.5 percent increase, and one at 5 percent increase.  According to board member Lowell VanDerlip, maintaining staff and all other expenses at a constant level would result in a 3.5 percent budget increase.  Parents in the audience and several board members protested the creation of a zero percent budget on the basis that it would effectively cause a 3.5 percent cut which would impact students negatively.  However the board felt that it would be instructive to see what each of those options would look like.

The board will present its top priorities and issues for discussion to the school administrative leadership team at their next meeting Oct. 22. The Program Finance Committee, an advisory group formed last spring after the budget was voted down, will also give its report to the board and the administrators at the same meeting.

At their Oct. 1 meeting, in a similar process, each committee member stated their top concerns: collaboration with neighboring districts, focus on per-pupil expenditures, and encouraging development of affordable housing to increase school population. Additional possibilities offered included exploring distance learning, more detailed budget presentations, dual enrollment options with neighboring colleges, focus on outcomes, developing additional revenue streams, and class size.

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Committee members explored several avenues for possible savings.  Toni Hartrich reviewed the entire budget with school budget director Cindi Rossi but uncovered no mistakes or big wasteful cost items.  Maurice Martineau interviewed Community Connections and the Recreation Department to see if there was any overlap in programs or ways to combine efforts, but found none.  Sharing of teachers, particularly in music, was reviewed because it drives the scheduling at all the schools, but no solution was unearthed there, either.

This committee, composed of two school board members, two teachers, and four members of the public, was given the highly challenging task of “mak[ing] recommendations to the board of options both within the present context of our school program as well as systemic changes that show potential to reduce or at least control costs and show promise to improve or at least maintain the quality of educational outcomes as measured by the board’s ends policies.”

As committee and school board member Lowell VanDerlip stated recently, “there is no silver bullet or smoking gun”—no obvious place to reduce current expenses without impacting student outcomes.  Several good ideas have surfaced, however, to guide the schools in looking forward.