By Stephanie Choate
After voters narrowly rejected the Williston School District 2013-2014 budget on Town Meeting Day, the Williston School Board is hoping the community will tell it what went wrong.
A new configuration of the board—former chairwoman Holly Rouelle stepped down after seven years and resident Kevin Brochu joined the board—sat down March 13 to tackle the budget at its first meeting since the vote.
Hoping to take in as much community input as possible before it begins formulating a new budget, the board scheduled a community forum for March 27 at 6:30 p.m. at Williston Central School.
On March 5, residents defeated the school district’s 2013-14 budget 602-629. The proposed $17.5 million budget was a 5.1 percent increase from the 2012-13 budget. The board struggled with a 4.18 percent increase in the baseline budget—the amount of money required to offer the same services as in the previous year—mainly due to increased health care costs and scheduled salary increases.
At the polls and at Town Meeting, several residents questioned the school’s 1-to-1 iPad initiative, a $95,500 line item in the budget. The initiative would have provided iPads for fifth and sixth grade students, and eventually all middle schoolers.
“I think the elephant in the room is that … enough of the portion of the community didn’t like the iPad initiative,” said Kevin Mara, the board’s new chairman, on March 13. “How much do we believe in the iPad initiative, and if we believe, what do we think we can do to convince the community that it’s worth their money?”
Mara also said he didn’t believe that 629 residents voted against the budget purely because of the iPad initiative.
Board member Giovanna Boggero agreed.
“I don’t think people are necessarily against it,” Boggero said. “I do believe people don’t understand it and I think we have an obligation to make it clear to them.”
“As a new board member and as a voter and fairly educated citizen, I didn’t really know or hear a whole lot about the iPad initiative,” Brochu said. He added that he was “surprised” when he heard about the cost, and while it didn’t sway his vote, he could see how it might tip the scales for a voter without children in the school system.
Although the board held several community forums and informational sessions regarding the budget, board members agreed they’d have to step up their efforts if they choose to stick with the iPad initiative.
“It’s church dinner and pancake breakfast time,” Mara said.
Board members said they did not pull the iPad out of the budget as a separate ballot item because they did not intend it to be funded as a bond and because the board wanted to build it into the program.
Mara noted that even if the board removed the iPads, it would amount to half a percent decrease in the budget.
“It’s not a fiscal changer, it’s a lightning rod issue,” he said.
Board member Josh Diamond said that the fact that the proposed budget is a 5.1 percent increase from last year’s budget compounds any residents’ issues with the iPad initiative.
Although he made clear he wasn’t advocating a drastic reduction, Diamond said he would like to see what the board would have to cut to hold the budget increase at the inflation rate of 3.5 percent.
If the board has to stand by an increase, he said, it should be able to tell the community exactly what the school system would be losing if the budget is further reduced.
“I feel confident that we can get a budget that we feel good about, that we support, that doesn’t harm our children and that we can pass,” Diamond said.
“We need to make tangible to people what we are giving away,” Boggero agreed. “When they understand the impact it will have on the quality of education they have, I think that’s going to be a wakeup call.”
After the board’s March 27 forum, it will meet again on April 2. The board discussed a tentative revote date of May 7, and plans to have at least one more community forum before the vote.
Schools have until July 1 to send an approved budget to the state.
iPads in the school budget
Williston School District’s proposed 1-to-1 iPad initiative would be funded by a $95,500 addition to the technology budget. The total cost of the initiative’s first year is $165,500, but $70,000 from the district’s current budget would be put toward the cost.
The expenditure would provide iPads to students in fifth and sixth grades, with the goal of eventually providing iPads to students in grades 5-8. In subsequent years, $95,500 would remain in the technology budget and be used to buy iPads for another grade level. Once all middle schoolers have an iPad, the money would go toward replacing units as they age.
Williston School Board Chair Kevin Mara said the cost estimates include money for teacher training. The school’s technology budget already includes funds for wireless Internet and software. The district does not intend to purchase data plans for the iPads, Mara said. Outside of school, students would use home or public networks to get online, though many of the programs the school hopes to use do not require Internet access, Mara said.
Students would be able to take the iPads home, but Mara said families would not be held responsible if a child breaks or loses an iPad. Families may be asked to pay an insurance premium—though he noted that the details have not been worked out yet.
The Williston School Board has not yet decided whether to keep or remove the initiative.