Worries over Act 82 hang in the air
Nov. 26, 2008
By Tim Simard
According to various school officials, the district needs to update its operations and its technology. New heating boilers are needed to ensure students stay warm through the winter, and more computers are needed to keep students up-to-date in 21st century learning.
The Williston School Board heard presentations on all these necessities and more during Thursday’s budget meeting. But the limitations brought on by Vermont’s Act 82 could mean that updates will have to wait for another school year.
The board’s prevailing concern is explaining to voters why Williston qualifies for two separate school budget votes, and convincing those voters to approve both budget articles. Passed by the state Legislature this year, Act 82 is essentially a spending cap for school budgets. If a school district’s proposed budget exceeds a 3.9 percent increase — a number determined by the state — residents must approve the additional funds through a second vote. As it stands now, Williston voters will have to decide on one article for $16.44 million, plus an additional vote for $325,000.
Williston’s baseline budget is increasing 3.03 percent from last year, but significant losses in revenue mean the district won’t have previously available funding. As a result, it will have to make up the difference by going for the second vote.
Bob Mason, chief operations officer for Chittenden South Supervisory Union, said unless the board finds other increased revenues or can cut net spending, a second vote is all but guaranteed.
School Board Chairwoman Darlene Worth said it is imperative word gets out about what the school budget represents and what it would mean if one article was passed and another was not.
Board member Holly Rouelle suggested showing voters where the money in the second vote would be linked to, such as programs and services.
“People need to see it’s not just a dollar amount, it’s programs for children in Williston,” Rouelle said.
District Principal Walter Nardelli agreed.
“You really have to show where the money is going,” he said. “Once the $325,000 is cut, it’s gone and there’s no going back.”
Allen Brook School Principal John Terko explained to the board that the operating budget for both schools, which makes up a portion of the overall district budget, is likely to increase 6.4 percent. Much of the increase comes from fuel and energy increases, although there might be some further tweaking in the budget if energy prices continue to drop, Terko said.
As for repairs and updates, Terko spoke about a new elevator needed in Williston Central School to replace the current one, which is broken. Last year, the school looked at a variety of options and found it was cheaper to install the elevator in another location.
Nardelli said much of the money to build a new elevator already exists in a construction fund. Voters would need to approve the money from the fund to be spent on the elevator in March, Nardelli said.
“We’re also hoping it will qualify for state aid, since it is an emergency,” Nardelli said.
Also of pressing need is the replacement of Williston Central School’s boilers, Terko said. The school has three large boilers used for heating, all of which are nearly 45 years old. The age of the heating units causes diminished efficiency and higher costs when parts break down.
“The boilers of today are much more efficient and take up less space,” Terko said.
Terko said each boiler would cost around $100,000 to replace and while replacing one is unlikely for the next school year, it should be considered for the “very near future.”
“If Act 82 weren’t here, we’d make that a priority,” Worth said.
The district’s technology director, Charlie Wilson, also gave a presentation on the importance of technology in learning. In a world that is becoming even more technologically advanced, the need for updated equipment is of utmost importance, Wilson said.
The school currently has 290 desktop computers and 130 laptops, which get updated on an eight-year rotation. Wilson said he’s looking to increase the student-to-computer ratio to one-to-one. He reiterated the importance of allowing students to bring their own laptops to school.
“Students should be able to bring computing devices to school,” Wilson said. “Every personal device that comes in is one more computer for other students in school.”
Student Services Director Carter Smith also presented the budget for the district’s special education program, which is increasing 4 percent, stemming from staff and other program costs.