By Luke Baynes
When the Williston School Board adjourned for the day—and the calendar year—on Dec. 13, the mood heading into the holiday season was anything but festive. They’d just been informed by Chittenden South Supervisory Union Chief Operations Officer Bob Mason that based on the most recent state education tax projections, a 4.18 percent hike to the district’s baseline budget for fiscal year 2014 would result in an estimated 9.59 percent homestead tax rate increase for Williston residents.
When the board called it a day on Jan. 10, the 9.59 percent tax rate increase had been shaved to 7.7 percent—despite the 4.18 percent baseline budget increase jumping to 5.1 percent through the inclusion of several “decision packets” for educational initiatives.
Counterintuitive as that turn of events may sound, Mason made sense of it by explaining that increased student projections from tuition-based St. George residents, combined with better than expected state special education funding, resulted in a more than $200,000 increase from the projected budget revenue figure presented at the Dec. 13 meeting. Also favorable to projected tax rates was an adjustment to Williston’s common level of appraisal (a metric used to equalize education taxes statewide) from the current 94.04 percent to a projected 95.29 percent in fiscal year 2014.
The selected decision packets—as voted for by a combination of administrative staff, school board members, teachers, parents and budget buddies from the Williston community—include a $39,030 early intervention outreach instructor and a $15,000 science consultant position, both of which were scaled back in work hours and salaries from the December meeting.
The early intervention position would be a liaison between the Williston School District and local pre-schools, while the part-time science coordinator would work with WSD instructors on curriculum improvements, with the goal that Williston students improve upon disappointing scores on the 2012 New England Common Assessment Program science assessments.
An additional survivor to the decision packet decision making process was an initiative to establish a 1-to-1 iPad-to-student ratio for grades 5-8 in the next two years. The $165,500 cost for the program previously reported was reduced to $96,500 for fiscal year 2014, due to technology funds approved by the board that had yet to be allocated by Williston District Principal Walter Nardelli.
“The reason why it’s been reduced to $96,500 is because we’re going to take a certain amount of money out of next year’s budget which is already in the tech program and designate it for this purpose,” Nardelli told the board. “It just means we’re going to change our replacement cycle (of laptops) and the way we usually look at things and make sure we do the iPads.”
The budget presented on Jan. 10 met with the general approval of the school board.
“I think when you put it in context with other budgets that have been presented to other taxpayers in the state, we’re in very good shape,” said board member Kevin Mara. “I think it’s a very defensible budget.”
Chairwoman Holly Rouelle also lauded the progress from the prior budget meeting.
“I’m just so impressed, knowing what other schools are looking at,” Rouelle said. “It feels that we haven’t compromised any of the programs.”
The board will officially vote on the fiscal year 2014 budget on Jan. 24, following a public hearing slated for 6 p.m. in the Williston Central School dining room. Final budget approval is subject to a town vote on Town Meeting Day (March 5).
Also up for voter approval on Town Meeting Day are two of the five Williston School Board slots, which are currently held by Mara and Rouelle.
Mara told the Observer that he plans to run for re-election for a two-year term.
Rouelle, whose youngest son will graduate from Champlain Valley Union High School this year, said she plans to step down after seven years on the board.
The deadline to file a petition for school board candidacy is Jan. 28.