Home News and Features School Board Grapples with Wages, Transparency, and Budget 

School Board Grapples with Wages, Transparency, and Budget 

photo of brick school building taken from a hill above the school.
Union Elementary School. Photo by Carla Occaso.
While the Montpelier Roxbury Public School board landed on a budget that only slightly increases Montpelier school tax rates and decreases Roxbury rates by nearly 10%, the bulk of it’s meeting last week was taken up with community concerns about transparency and the process of how the board makes decisions, from a recent track upgrade to equity of resources.

The Budget

The board held a second budget forum for the upcoming year’s budget on Jan. 4. The draft budget numbers shifted slightly because of updated information about the state education funding formula. The proposed total school budget is $28,850,118, a 6.07% increase over last year. The school tax rate will increase by 1.28% ($0.02) in Montpelier and decrease by 9.67% in Roxbury ($0.13). In real dollars, this translates to an increase of $43 on a $200,000 home in Montpelier (or a total tax bill of $3,398), and a cut of $278 on the residential tax rate on a $200,000 home in Roxbury (or a tax bill of $2,601). This is in part because of declining enrollment at the elementary level. State funding calculations estimated a drop in the Equalized Pupil count, which accounted for a $1.6 million increase in education spending to $19,653.94.

Transparency and Process

Although the meeting was planned primarily as budget focused, substantial discussion centered on community concerns ranging from transparency and process in the development and funding of the track project, net-zero goals, academic skills, and equity of resources for students, to pay equity for school food services workers.

Tina Muncy, a retired MRPS teacher and principal, questioned the equity and system of education received by the district’s 46 students at the Roxbury Village School. The nearly $10,000 higher per pupil cost in Roxbury over the cost at Union Elementary School doesn’t make for equitable education, according to Muncy.

“Any school under 100 kids is not financially feasible,” she said. “But it is also impossible to provide a good education because you cannot hire the people you need. There is the problem of having a (Montpelier) teacher travel 30 minutes in the middle of the day to get to another school. So you are left hiring a point-one (full-time equivalent) art teacher. That means whomever you hire needs to make a full-time job for themselves by working point-one here, point-two there, etc. This leaves you without the staff you need.” 

Parent Angela Shea commented “Our district has a duty to adopt an evidenced-based, direct explicit literacy program instruction as opposed to our current whole language approach. It would be hard not to talk about our current reading curriculum and equity in the same breath due to issues of low-income, limited English proficiency, neurodiverse, and BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] students who are at greater risk of falling behind their peers in reading proficiency.” 

Superintendent Libby Bonesteel reported that there is now one full-time staff member providing explicit phonics instruction (Orton Gillingham), “and three staff members who are trained in it.” Bonesteel praised her “high flying” academic intervention team at Union Elementary School and is increasing the capacity at Main Street to “match the capacity we have at Union.” 

Montpelier High School’s remediation/intervention efforts lag behind the other schools. According to Bonesteel. “I think there is a need for more capacity at the high school in the future in terms of remediation efforts. We don’t have the system or schedule there yet. We haven’t figured out some things yet at the high school, so I hesitate to add more human resources at the high school without knowing what they’re doing. Without having the culture and the climate and the system and the schedule in place here at the high school for that work.” 

”I’ve spoken to many people in the community who feel that your efforts at transparency have not been very successful with regard to budgeting particularly,” said parent Lisa Burns. “I would like to know if there is a budget cap for how much our board is willing to put into our track.” Jim Murphy, board chair, stated ”We’ve committed to a discrete project. That’s a project that does not necessitate us spending further.”

Burns also asked about net-zero projects in the district. Board member Kristen Getler reported that the school board committed $50,000 to net zero in 2021. The energy and facilities committee is working on a resolution or policy on the district’s approach to achieving net zero, she said, adding that she expects a draft resolution from the committee soon.

Board member Emma Bay Hansen asked if student activity costs that are not already in the budget can be included. For example, the Montpelier High School Boosters Club was asked to pay for jackets for the state championship soccer team and travel expenses for a regional competition for that team. Some of the funds for a $10,000 upgrade to theater lighting equipment were raised through a GoFundMe drive, she said. Bonesteel indicated that the fund balance could be used for these expenses.

Board Vice Chairperson Mia Moore read a letter from the Union Elementary School Food Service employees, as presented by Nancy Bruce, asking for “fair employment practices and a livable wage” including benefits. These employees are not unionized and wrote that “previous attempts of communication with the superintendent have been met with indifference.” Bruce stressed that they are also very understaffed. 

Bonesteel replied that the food service program is a self-sustaining fund that runs a deficit that the district covers, although the manager of the food service, Jim Birmingham, is a district employee. According to Bruce, in 2022 inflation was 9.1% (the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the consumer price index showed 7.1% inflation in 2022). 

Food service staff were given a 3% wage increase at the beginning of this school year, and still their wages are more than $3 an hour below the Vermont average for cafeteria workers. Bay Hanson and Jill Remick expressed a keen interest in increasing food service staff wages.

“I think one of the challenges that I have to weigh as well is that we have several staffing (departments). So if we pay one group of staff members considerably more than say our instructional assistants, then we could potentially be setting ourselves up for our instructional assistants to leave to a different job when we are in desperate need of instructional assistants,” Bonesteel said. “I have to look across the board with multiple employees. It is not so cut and dry.” 

Murphy said that “Food services are critically valued. And we do really appreciate what you do, so we do appreciate you bringing this to our attention. We want to make sure that you are adequately paid and adequately compensated.” The board will place the food service staff wages discussion on a future agenda, he said.

The school board holds its budget and warning approval on Jan. 18, and a budget informational meeting will be held March 6, the day before voters decide on the budget at the Town Meeting Day polls.