By Valentyn Smith
The Montpelier Roxbury Public School Board reviewed a $27 million draft budget last week, which, thanks to increased revenue from federal grants, will not increase the tax rate. The next budget meeting is scheduled for Dec. 15.
Part of the budget calls for new positions to benefit students and staff suffering from increased stress because of COVID-19. Incoming federal funds will address staffing shortages and spacing needs to support teachers in helping students learn during the pandemic. Although the budget is predicted to increase 4.4 percent over the next two years, the cost of new positions is covered by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) and the American Rescue Plan.
According to the school website, “The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund is a federal formula grant managed by the Vermont Agency of Education.” These one-time, emergency funds help support the needs of district students and staff during COVID-19.
The school board allocated the $2,230,394 in federal funds into its budget draft to cover new educational and infrastructural expenses from 2021 to 2023.
At the meeting, the school board discussed how 20 percent ($446,079) of the federal funding must address “learning loss.” How the district will spend these millions of dollars in grants depends on feedback received on the best use of COVID-19-19 relief funding from the school community.
Grant Geisler, business manager for the district, said the federal grants act as revenue that offset expenses. Federal funding is a “non-tax revenue” intended to address both educational and infrastructural needs of the school community and to support student and staff well-being. Federal funds allow the administration to add new positions to support educational needs during COVID-19 without burdening taxpayers.
This revenue would cover the expenses of staffing, including the possibility of academic interventionists, a board-certified behavior analyst, and an alternative-program teacher. The grants also allow for building upgrades needed to provide safe learning spaces during and after the pandemic.
Other potential projects that may be funded by these federal grants include a special education office suite (Union Elementary School, $258,000); a little gym (Union Elementary, $195,000); a playground (Union Elementary, $195,000); a cafeteria (Main Street Middle School, $172,000); a kitchen (Main Street Middle, $225,000); and a transition room apartment (Montpelier High School, $375,000). The total estimated cost of the potential opportunities are subject to change.
Some of these funds have already been allocated to help support the district needs during the pandemic. For instance, part of a $994,201 federal grant has been spent on student devices ($124,000); three math intervention positions ($279,000); professional development via a teachers’ writers workshop and a teachers’ development group ($171,000); community outreach liaison ($189,600 for two years); and summer programming ($30,000).
Superintendent Libby Bonesteel said: “We haven’t made final decisions on this yet. If we put positions into ESSER funding, then we have to make decisions regarding finding other sources to fund the positions when the grant is done or RIF the positions.”
While budgeting, the school district is developing a plan for education recovery centering on social-emotional health, mental health, and well-being; student engagement; and academic achievement. Another budget focus is on safety and health, with priorities to indoor air quality and learning environments. This part of the emergency aid is being allocated to local education agencies and comes with spending expectations.
Board chairperson Jim Murphy said, “The board and the administration have received extensive feedback from the community through listening sessions, online tools, at board meetings, through individual emails and calls, and other outreach. We feel the budget reflects much of this feedback, particularly around the areas of equity, special education, literacy, and building tiers of support to ensure that students get timely and effective learning intervention.”
During the funding process, the school board has been using online tools such as Thought Exchange, where community members may add their input.
The most recent Thought Exchange survey was emailed to the Montpelier-Roxbury community on Dec. 6. Thought Exchange provides a platform where projects considered for federal funding use may receive community feedback. It collected opinions on important supports needed for academic success, social-emotional/mental health, and student engagement. The survey will be open until Dec. 17.
There will be two more public budget presentations that will reflect changes in the budget. The board will finalize the budget by mid-January.
“The best place for the community to provide feedback on the budget in particular is to speak during the public comment portion of every board meeting, particularly at the next three board meetings. Anyone can also get in touch with me or any of the board members,” Bonesteel said.
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