By Tom Brown
As administrators and board members prepare to tackle the second Montpelier-Roxbury School District budget, it will be the first for a new superintendent and a new board member.
New Superintendent Libby Bonesteel and newly appointed board member Andrew Stein enter the budget season this week with enthusiasm and optimism as details of the merged relationship between the capital city and tiny Roxbury continue to be forged.
Stein, a research economist with the state tax department, brings to the board a deep understanding of the mechanism used to pay for schools. Stein is about to switch jobs soon, however, to become deputy auditor of accounts under Doug Hoffer. Stein was appointed to the school board to replace Peter Sterling, who resigned in August. Stein said he will seek election to the post in March.
The board has a full slate of responsibilities this year as, in addition to the annual budget process, it faces teacher contract negotiations and works to unify school policies in the wake of the Act 46 merger between Montpelier and Roxbury. As a member of the board’s finance and negotiations committee, Stein will be quickly thrust into the heart of these often thorny debates.
“I’m happy to do this work for our community,” said Stein, who previously served on the city’s energy advisory committee. “It is extremely time-intensive, and it’s putting my technical skills to good use for our community.”
One item that could show up in the budget proposal is a remedy for parents seeking transportation for students who attend Main Street Middle School.
“Including transportation in the budget could be a net gain for Montpelier families at large,” he said. “If you have dozens of families that are driving their kids to school, there is an economic cost in terms of lost work and an effect on career paths.” He said he would have to see the details before endorsing any specific solution.
Montpelier is somewhat unique in bucking the statewide trend toward declining enrollment. Projections show Montpelier’s K–12 student enrollment increasing by about 100 students by the 2022–23 school year, from 350 next year to 444 in ’22–’23 (both figures include Roxbury students, which number about 40 this year in grades 5–12). Higher enrollment helps the district by raising student-staff ratios, increasing state funding, and possibly enabling more opportunities for students.
“Many of the issues that I’ve been hearing about in terms of educational or athletic or extracurricular opportunities really come down to scale,” Stein said, “not having enough kids to field a team or to offer certain courses, such as foreign language, computer science, or additional history classes. I don’t think that we move our education system forward by nickel-and-diming teachers. I think that we achieve greater value by, in some cases, achieving greater economies of scale.”
How to pay for schools will once again dominate debate in the Vermont Legislature next year, with many renewing the effort to move from a system based on property values to one that is geared toward income. As a tax economist, Stein said the devil is in the details but believes maintaining the state’s progressive income tax structure is vital.
Bonesteel said voters should not expect a large increase over the current $23.4 million budget and credits district business manager Grant Geisler with providing continuity in the budgeting process while she gains a foothold in her new job and praised the board for its efforts.
“We have a very dedicated group of people who put the needs of all our kids first,” said Bonesteel, who was hired in June to replace former superintendent, Brian Ricca. She came to the Montpelier-Roxbury district from the Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union (Swanton-Highgate), where she was director of curriculum and instruction.
Stein, who is married to Mairead Harris, a teacher of Mandarin Chinese at Stowe High School, said Montpelier is fortunate to have great outcomes among its high school graduates and to have a community that supports quality public education.
“When I approach a decision on the board, I am consistently thinking how we can provide high-quality education for all of our students at the highest value and how we insure that we are investing across socioeconomic statuses; how we are investing this money to support students who have special needs as well as accelerated learners; how we help them achieve their goals and pursue their interests,” he said. “Because, at the end of the day, as a public education system that’s what we should be doing. It’s not that it wouldn’t be great to make things more affordable, the question is how can we do it and maintain our quality.”