Although state ballot language could make it look like the Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools Board increased its budget significantly more than it did, the board recently approved a budget that yielded a modest tax increase of 1.37% for Montpelier, and decreased property taxes by 9.59% in Roxbury. Directors unanimously adopted the $28.6 million FY24 budget during their regular meeting on Jan 11.
While the board adopted a contained budget, unless it changes before Town Meeting Day on March 7, state ballot language will speak to a 9.05% increase in state education spending per pupil (Article 3), and not the local budget’s modest effect on property taxes. School board members discussed how confusing this could be to voters, who may misinterpret the ballot language about the state spending increase as a local spending increase.
According to business manager Christina Kimball the current State education funding formula to school districts is based on a complicated weighting formula.” We have decreased enrollment which lowers our two year Average Daily Membership. Which then also affects our weighting for secondary students and poverty students, giving us a lower equalized pupil number.”
Parents Challenge Effectiveness of Reading Instruction
The public comment section of the meeting took center stage, however, as two parents challenged the district’s provision of educational equity and effective reading instruction. Effective instruction and an adequate number of staff members to provide it were district priorities highlighted by Superintendent Libby Bonesteel throughout the FY 24 budget deliberations.
Amanda Garces (a former board member) and Grace Pazdan, parents of elementary school students, shared their concerns about the budgeted $69,261 cost of the Columbia University Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Lucy Calkins’ “Units of Study in Reading and Writing” is the program used by the district according to Garces and Pazdan.
Bonesteel testified against a Vermont legislative dyslexia bill in 2020, and supported a more whole language approach to teaching reading.
”Our goal as an educational system is to create life-long readers,” she testified. “We have to give equal weight to comprehension from the start; students have to love books, and if we are only teaching them to read in pieces or the micro skills, there is significant potential to put that love in jeopardy as well as developing students who have no sense of what they are actually reading.”
According to Pazdan, both of her children have ”lacked access to consistent evidence-based structured literacy instruction in their classrooms.” And she had reached out to the board previously about her concerns, she said. Pazdan added that she has paid “out of pocket” for learning evaluations and tutoring to meet their needs.
“We’re worried about the kids who don’t have those resources available to them, and those are the kids that are going to fall through the cracks,” she told the board. “The heaviest burden is going to be borne by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous , and People of Color) English language learners, low income, learning disabled, and other marginalized students …This literacy education piece is a gaping (equity) black spot for the district and I’m asking you to do something about it.”
In a previous budget hearing Bonesteel reported that more interventionists are trained in structured literacy instruction called “Orton Gillingham” than are providing that instruction. Board chair Jim Murphy and vice chair Mia Moore asked Garces and Pazdan to email them the research information they presented.
Regional Legislative Discussion
Local state legislators met with the board to discuss the outlook for state educational funding this legislative session. Discussion centered on legislation that impacts schools, including: testing for PCBs and removing those toxins from the schools; education funding; tax credits; childcare; an after-school program in Roxbury possibly funded by cannabis revenue; free and reduced-cost lunch; state educational quality standards for ethnic studies and improving student literacy were briefly discussed.
Legislators who participated were:
Andrew Perchlik, three-term Washington County senator, two years on the Education Committee and this year vice chair of the Appropriations Committee.
Ann Cummings, senior senator, chair of the Finance Committee and former chair of the Education Committee.
Anne Watson, first-year senator, vice chair of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee and a member of the Government Operations Committee.
Kate McCann, first-year representative on the House Committee on Education.
The board Facilities and Energy Committee has been focused on developing a net-zero resolution for the district. They include the Montpelier Energy Advisory Council, the Montpelier High School Earth Group, Roxbury‘s energy coordinator, and state energy sector representatives in this work. They will have a final draft to the board in March. The thought is this will lead to a policy and action plan, and will use $50,000 earmarked for the effort. The district has requested that PCB testing be done at Union and Main Street schools in February and March. Testing at the Roxbury Village School and Montpelier High School is scheduled for January, 2024.