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Superintendent Presents No Reductions In School Budget


by Carla Occaso

MONTPELIER — Across town from City Hall, on Dec. 14 — the same night city council had a standing-room-only meeting — the Montpelier Public School District quietly presented its first draft of the fiscal year 2018 budget, which is up by 1.6 million over last year, or 8.76 percent. The Bridge reviewed the video and meeting minutes for this story.

Superintendent Brian Ricca started the budget section of the school board saying, “It continues to be a real privilege to serve this community as superintendent of schools. None more so than in a year when we are offering zero reductions for the first time since I’ve served. And that is a credit to the rising enrollment in our district, that is a credit to this board’s seriousness about serving all students,” Ricca said. Those present (board members, principals and superintendent) explained the mission of this budget is to provide resources to accommodate an expected increase in students, implement personalized learning plans and to help struggling learners —  as well as to bolster other areas.

The bottom line is, last year’s approved school budget was around $17.9 million. This year’s proposed budget sits at roughly $19.5 million.

Education is partly funded by property taxes. According to Ricca, the Montpelier common level of appraisal has dropped 2 points. That happens when property sells for higher prices than it is valued. The effect on property owners is that taxes would go up by $81 on a home valued at $100,000, up by $161 for a home valued at $200,000 and up by $242 for a home valued at $300,000.

According to meeting minutes, the draft budget would result in a 5 percent tax rate increase, and 5.5 percent cost per pupil increase, which led to a board with opinions split as to what to do. School board members Tina Muncy, Bridget Asay and Ken Jones, upon Jones’ motion, voted to have the school board whittle the numbers down and present a new, more slender version. Board members Jim Murphy and Steve Hingtgen voted against the reduction proposal, saying student achievement has suffered due to prolonged years of budget cutting. Michelle Braun, board chair, abstained. Absent a quorum, the motion failed and the budget as drafted is going to be presented at the next meeting.

Several cost additions were included, including a full-time technology support person at $68,956 and a district special educator at $73,693 (56 percent would be reimbursed). The budget also calls for two more seventh and eighth grade teachers due to rising enrollments, a math interventionist and increases in physical education and health at the Main Street Middle School. For Montpelier High School, a slight increase for social study instruction, physical education and a ‘flexible pathways’ coordinator, among other items.

Ricca said the gap in achievement equity — the vast distance between the highest achievers and lowest achievers — has required Montpelier Public Schools (along with schools throughout the nation) to implement strategies to improve overall performance. And to do that, those struggling need a boost. The most recent strategy is to implement personalized lesson plans and a program called “flexible pathways” because “We know the traditional model of school doesn’t work for all students. We are proud to implement proficiency to lead all students to a true graduation experience that does not rely on content alone … to meet students’ needs as well as their passions.” Ricca expressed fears about how a new administration could cut federal funding to some programs.

Said Braun near the end of the meeting, “I agree with and support all the revolutionary work that has been done on the proficiency-based learning and personalized learning plans, I think it is pretty exciting and I am super impressed with the way it is being done.” However, she said she has been questioned on whether the emphasis on equity hurts the “advanced” students.

“And my response to the community member who approached me was that it is my understanding that the literacy intervention and the math intervention specialists are helping the teachers learn better strategies for differentiation, which then better serves all students. And, when you close the gap, then you have a smaller range of students to teach to, again making it easier to differentiate.”

Ricca said if you help the students who struggle the most then everyone’s performance improves. “A rising tide carries all boats,” he said.

A couple of parents stood up to speak in support of spending more money in order to help students.

School board member Tina Muncy first said she would not support a 5 percent increase, but after hearing the rationale behind it — to support new federal mandates, implement a new grading system and improve the achievement gap — she could accept it. She said she would rather see it closer to a 2.5 percent tax increase, though. Ken Jones agreed with Muncy, saying a 2.5 percent increase would be preferable.

The board will meet again Jan. 11, and then must finalize the budget by Jan. 18 so it is ready to be printed up for voters to accept or reject on Town Meeting Day 2017.