Residents react to proposed staff cuts1/15/09

Jan. 15, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

The Williston School Board, at a meeting on Jan. 8, announced it wants to keep the 2009-2010 school budget increase to around 1 percent over last year. Part of the decision has to do with keeping the budget low to avoid two-votes under the provisions of Act 82, board members said. Another factor is the troubled economy and the strain on residents’ wallets.

About 20 parents and community members turned out to weigh in on the proposed budget, which could include cuts of teachers, teaching assistants and paraeducators. Some advocated more teaching assistant positions be cut to save a classroom teaching position, while others stressed the importance of teaching assistants and paraeducators.

The board did not make any final decisions at the meeting, but took into account the public’s testimony.

“It was great to have so many turn out,” Worth said. “It really helps us out in the budget process.”

District Principal Walter Nardelli began the meeting by outlining new calculations on how the school system will be able to reduce expenses. The presentation furthered the conversation about how to cut $325,000 from the baseline budget — the amount necessary to avoid Act 82’s second vote.

Act 82 is a spending cap enacted by the state Legislature, aiming to keep schools from overspending.

The biggest reduction came in the health care department, where the district expects to save more than $171,000. Nardelli said the Vermont Education Health Insurance Initiative, where faculty and staff get their coverage from, is not raising its rates this year in order to help schools.

Combined with other savings in fuel, St. George tuition and a retiring staff member, the district will be $26,000 shy of meeting the $325,000 benchmark.

Nardelli then outlined other possible areas for cuts. The School Board could choose to cut, in any variety of combinations, a $15,000 teaching assistant position, an $18,000 paraeducator position or a $62,000 classroom teaching position. The teacher cut would hopefully come through retirement, Nardelli said.

A $24,000 bus run could be cut as well, Nardelli added.

Another possibility would be to reduce a special educator’s full-time position to part-time, saving between $36,000 and $51,000. Parent Cricket LaStrada spoke out against the full-time cut, saying services are already too reduced.

“There’s not enough time for people to do what they do to cut anymore,” LaStrada said.

Nardelli also discussed the decision packages for the board and public. Among them, a new elevator and upgraded phone system for E-911 compliance stand at the forefront. Nardelli said the phone system could be covered in funds from this year’s budget and the plan would be to have the upgrade completed before the summer.

Nardelli said the elevator needs to be done as soon as possible and $200,000 is in the construction fund for the project.

Decision packages that have direct impact on this year’s budget include $3,000 for both library software and fine arts supplies. The school is asking for another $10,000 for five Smart Boards — interactive white boards that are linked to computers and the Internet.

Some parents at the meeting were unsure about the necessity of the Smart Board package, since the school already has some on hand in its computer labs. Cutting the decision package could save a teaching assistant position, some argued.

Worth defended the boards as important tools in the future of education, but did not come right out and support the package.

“We’re going to have to give up something if we want to make changes and move forward,” Worth said.

Nardelli said he would look into a program where teachers sign up to learn how to use Smart Boards and can then purchase one at a reduced price.

Worth said she’s hopeful that voters will approve the school budget on Town Meeting Day in March, especially if it’s kept near a 1 percent increase.

The board meets again this Thursday, Jan. 15, before giving its final approval for a budget on Jan. 22. The Jan. 15 budget meeting starts at 6 p.m. at Williston Central School, followed by a regular board meeting at 7:30 p.m.