Oct. 28, 2010By Greg Duggan Observer staff
If attendance at two forums on Tuesday was any indication, faculty and staff in the Williston School District have much greater interest than parents in budget talks.
The Williston School Board began the budget season at Williston Central School by hosting two forums — one for faculty and staff, and another for parents. Three parents showed up at the 6 p.m. forum; by comparison, approximately 30 faculty and staff members attended the earlier forum for teachers, board Chairwoman Holly Rouelle and District Principal Walter Nardelli said.
The School Board needs to present its proposed budget by January. With a non-binding directive from the state Legislature to reduce spending, the board wanted to begin its budget process with feedback from teachers and parents.
Under the Challenges for Change bill passed in the spring, the state’s education commission must identify $23.5 million to cut from school budgets statewide. Each supervisory union and school has a budget reduction goal for the next fiscal year, as assigned by the commissioner of education. Williston has a Challenges for Change reduction figure of $265,760.
School districts must decide by Dec. 15 whether they will be able to meet the challenge. Chittenden South Supervisory Union Chief Operations Officer Bob Mason said Williston would receive its baseline budget figure on Nov. 10.
The fact that Challenges for Change is at this point a suggestion rather than a requirement was a major sticking point for parent Joshua Diamond.
“What if we say no (to Challenges for Change), to promote quality education?” Diamond asked, noting that a strong educational system also boosts property values.
Diamond praised the School Board for minimizing budget increases the past few years, and said the district shouldn’t necessarily have to make more cuts this year.
Diamond had support from Larry Lackey, another of the parents at the forum.
“Kids get an excellent education here,” Lackey said.
To bolster Diamond’s argument, Mason and School Board members said that debt the school district usually needs to pay off will come off the books in the next fiscal year; Mason estimated the savings could essentially cover the Challenges for Change figure.
But the board cautioned it wanted to take a long-term approach to the school budget, in case it was forced to make larger cuts in future years. Furthermore, Mason noted the uncertainty in anticipating how the Legislature would react if schools reject Challenges for Change.
The discussion followed a brief presentation by Nardelli and Mason about school curriculum and the budget situation.
As part of the forum, the School Board asked participants four questions: which areas or programs could be reduced or eliminated, which areas or programs should not be reduced, what are the minimum requirements for providing a quality education and in what ways can the school district “rethink the way (it) currently provide(s) education to preserve the quality and programs while funding sources decline?”
Diamond, Lackey and parent Jan Mazzone all preferred to make as few cuts as possible. Mazzone encouraged the school to continue its enrichment programs, while looking to trim the outdated parts of educational programs.
All three parents said they attended the forum to voice support for the school district and to ensure a quality education for their kids.
“I’m interested in my kids’ future,” Mazzone said.
“I think schools are the core of our communities,” Diamond said.
Nardelli and Rouelle said they were impressed by the teacher turnout and suggestions, which included thoughts of a longer school year — classes would run the same number of days, but over a more spread out schedule — and offering more online services.
Nardelli plans to compile and type up the suggestions, and to continue the discussion with the school’s Program Council.
The School Board plans to continue budget discussions in mid-November, and encouraged parents to participate in the process.
“We’re at the very beginning stages,” Rouelle said.
The next Williston School District budget hearing is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 18 at Williston Central School.