The Montpelier Roxbury School Board came to the Nov. 15 meeting with new direction from the Agency of Education on how to calculate the effects of Act 127, a state-wide funding formula adjustment for schools. The fiscal year 2025 budget will not need to be cut as much as previously presented, so the need to make a decision about closing Roxbury Village School in just six weeks has been avoided.
The “shock from last week was unfortunate, but it was a very honest accounting,” said Jim Murphy, board chairperson. “There is absolutely no live proposal right now to close any of our four schools. None. Zero,” he said. “I understand the angst.”
“We were using numbers that we were told to use from the state,” said superintendent Libby Bonesteel, who said she debated sharing the information. Since the Nov. 1 meeting she said she asked the Agency of Education for clarity.
Act 127 is intended to provide better educational equity to Vermont students by changing the way students are weighted in the funding formula that affects how much money school districts get from the state. The state can provide money from the education fund in place of taxpayer money over the next five years, until FY30, to spread out the blow to districts facing budget cuts.
But, if the district’s spending per weighted pupil increases by more than 10% annually, the state can choose to revoke the education fund money if it deems the budget excessive. This effectively caps the total budget increase. Bonesteel had previously said there was limited information from the state on how to translate the figures from the prior student weightings.
“We were told by the agency to do it one way before the last board meeting, and we’ve been told to do it a different way for this board meeting. Which is good news,” said Bonesteel.
“With this different way to count the pupils, it’s about $2.4 million” that the budget can increase by, said Bonesteel. This makes the FY24 to FY25 per weighted pupil increase 9.997%, she said. Last week, that budget increase was presented to be $800,000, which caused the concern about Roxbury Village School.
More salary figures are known, and the budget increase needed to cover promised salaries and benefits is now $2.8 million, said Bonesteel. The school will need to do some budget cutting, probably within the full-time equivalent employee category, she said, however “it’s a much easier avenue to get there, than it was before.”
“This doesn’t change the long-term five-year projection,” said Bonesteel. “There’s a cliff in FY30,” the last year in Act 127 for education fund money. She said she is grappling with how “we forecast this five years from now … in order to come in with a responsible budget for FY30.”
“This is not like, get out of jail information,” said Murphy. “It buys us time to have a much more thoughtful conversation,” he said. “Some of those choices might be we just all live with much higher taxes,” he added.
As more schools withdraw money from the education fund, there’s uncertainty over “how the ed fund is going to continue to be solvent,” said Bonesteel. “It’s the question that everybody in education right now is asking.”
“The state has not done well, the past 30 years, with education finance and explaining how it works,” said Jake Feldman, board member, who also works at the Vermont Department of Taxes. “You cannot have local control without local comprehension,” he said.
Bonesteel noted that there is budget information on the MRPS website with information that addresses questions from the public.
Public Comment with Large Roxbury Turnout
There were about 18 attendees at the meeting, and 20 more online. Talk of potentially closing Roxbury Village School “was a possibility that was thrown out” at the last meeting, said Murphy.
One man in attendance said he got information secondhand that Nov. 15 was a meeting about closing the school. About ten public commenters, young and old, spoke about Roxbury Village School with their thoughts on strategies, how much they value the school, and what it means to them personally.
“I attended fourth grade at the Roxbury Village School,” said a young speaker from Roxbury. “Having that connection to the place we live is really important.”
“I want to really emphasize, especially for young children, for elementary school children, how wonderful a rural Vermont education is,” said Ben Pinkus, from Roxbury. For the “history of New England, our legacy as a rural state,” he said, “it would be a real loss.”
“Without our school, no happy sounds of kids on the playground,” and “no rhythm of learning in Roxbury,” said a public commenter from Roxbury. “How ignorant to think that disrupting every family with school-age children each day will be OK,” she said to the board.
“There’s ample research out there in the world connecting the health of a school system to the health of a town. The economic health,” said James Rea, a parent of two students. “I would encourage everyone to join me in my Google searches for those studies. Arm ourselves with that knowledge.”
“I would like the board to consider looking at alternative uses for the school,” said Lucinda Sullivan, from Roxbury.
“There’s a silver lining to this of the amount of community engagement we saw,” said Mia Moore. “I just want to keep encouraging people to keep coming to these meetings.”
New Assessments, New Data for Teachers
Michael Berry, director of curriculum and technology, presented the district’s new assessment plan, Renaissance Star. The assessment is a short quiz, taken three times a year, which helps screen students in kindergarten through grade 12, he said.
A classroom teacher can see which skills an individual student is higher or lower in, as well as view their whole class, said Berry.
“Where something is particularly low, the teachers can use it to pre-teach in a small group setting,” said Bonesteel. “Around like six years ago, there was nothing in place like this,” she said. “There wasn’t a conversation around this.”
Berry said the new assessments give teachers “a really immediate sense of where their students are at, and how to tailor instruction and support.”
Peggy-Sue Van Nostrand, director of student support services, said there was an “increase in the number of students that are being found eligible for special education.” Last Nov. 1, there were 125 K–12 eligible students compared to this year’s 156, “so that’s pretty significant,” said Nostrand, adding “I think that we will see an upward trend because of the way that the regulations were changed.”
A number of parents requested screening for their children after COVID, but only about half of the students were eligible,” said Nostrand.
Hazing, harassment, and bullying investigations are down 30% from the same time last year, said Jessica Murray, director of social emotional learning and wellness. “At MHS [Montpelier High School] our phone usage is down by 57%, they have a new cell phone policy that has really been successful,” she said.
“Our suspension rate is down 85%, which I am very very excited about, it’s a huge, huge change from last year,” said Murray. From the same time period in 2022, “we were on average suspending students twice a week, and now it is on average once every two months,” she said.
“Fewer suspensions is a positive direct result of a greater holistic approach around restorative practices,” said Mia Moore, adding that practice is a big shift from three years ago.
“We’ve added significant staff to our social emotional learning group,” said Bonesteel. Main Street Middle School and Union Elementary School have a social emotional learning coach who also goes to Roxbury, she said. Jason Gingold, Montpelier High School Principal, said students are catching up socially, emotionally, and academically from the disruptive effect of COVID. Shannon Miller, RVS Principal, said there are still effects in early elementary students in “how to play games together, what social boundaries look like.”
Nick Connor, community liaison, presented on chronic absenteeism, defined as missing 10% or more of the school year, or four of the 40 school days so far.
For the district, “23.5% of young people are chronically absent, as of Oct. 27, so that’s 258 students. This time last year as a district we were at about 25%, so it’s coming down a little bit,” said Connor.
“We do certainly have families that are in need of a lot of support … access to food, access to housing,” said Connor. “All these pieces are having a really big impact on our students’ ability to be present and ready for school,” he said.
Chronic absenteeism across the country doubled during the pandemic, said Connor. “We are not seeing the recovery in absenteeism that we would have expected to see after the pandemic,” he said Connor. “It’s sticking.”
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