Potential school budget cuts: $300,000

Proposed new taxes could drop by half

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Williston School District administrators last week shared a list of potential school budget cuts that could total $300,000 if all are implemented.

For a home valued at $300,000, those cuts—combined with a reduction in the Vermont state base tax rate—could mean a tax bill roughly $150 smaller than the bill expected under the budget Williston voters defeated last month (see table page 3). Reducing the proposed $15.73 million budget by $300,000 translates into a 2.2 percent residential school property tax rate increase, instead of a 5.1 percent tax rate increase, before income sensitivity reductions.

Not all of the potential cuts may be implemented. The School Board is expected to take final comments and make decisions about cuts at the April 5 board meeting at 6 p.m. at Williston Central School. Voters are scheduled to return to the polls to weigh in on the new budget on Tuesday, May 8.

About 40 parents and teachers packed into a meeting room at Williston Central School last Thursday night to learn more about special education services, teacher and staff pay, numbers and roles of paraeducators and teaching assistants, and the possible budget cuts.

Proposed cuts fall into two categories – those that were new to the proposed budget (or received more money than the current year’s budget) and those that represent cuts from the current budget.

Potential “new” cuts

About $75,000 could be saved by cutting eight line items that would have been new to the budget. The two biggest potential cuts financially include a half-time teacher to assist students in earlier grades who are struggling with reading, and a half-time school social worker who would assist low-income families with finding appropriate social services. The school’s current caseload precludes all students who need that assistance from being served.

Two potential cuts that drew clear opposing comments were foreign language supply funds, which have not seen an increase since 2003 despite rising enrollment, and a 10-percent time enrichment teacher who would teach advanced math students.

“To me it’s already a tragedy we don’t have world language in the lower houses,” parent Andy Patterson said.

Not adding more funds for supplies makes the classes that do exist less effective, Patterson said. Patterson also opposed cutting the 10-percent time enrichment teacher. Both of those line items equal less than $4,000.

“It just seems like there is so little for kids of high abilities,” he said, noting that enrichment is one of the parts in school that challenges his kids. “If you look at the scale of where the resources are, it’s so skewed toward lower level children.”

Parent Polly Malik said she agreed with Patterson.

“I feel that my daughter barely receives any enrichment,” she said. “Any enrichment she gets I provide it. It’s coming out of my pocket.”

Other potential cuts include a slight expansion of computer technology staff; and supplies for guidance and enrichment activities and design and technology classes. The latter budget has not seen increases for a number of years despite rising costs for lumber and other supplies.

Board member Holly Rouelle asked if consideration was given to cutting hours of teaching assistants.

“It feels like the supplies for design and technology and world language supplies are closer to the children than clerical paraeducators,” Rouelle said.

Williston Central School Principal Jacqueline Parks said those teaching assistants aren’t doing only clerical work, but also are working with small groups of students on class material.

Items new to the proposed budget that would not be cut include a part-time foreign language teacher, a part-time math intervention teacher, and funding for a mentoring program.

Potential cuts from current budget

The bulk of the potential $300,000 cuts come from the current year’s budget. Since January when the first budget was proposed, school administrators learned of voluntary changes in teaching staff, according to District Principal Walter Nardelli. Some teachers have indicated plans to retire, take leaves of absence or reduce their hours, all of which could reduce teacher salary and benefit costs, Nardelli said.

None of those changes are expected to affect class size, Nardelli said. Similar savings may be in store due to voluntary changes in administrative support staff. Nardelli noted the details of all personnel changes are confidential until they’re finalized.

Administrators also proposed paying new special educators less, meaning those that are hired have less experience. Special education transportation and changes in personnel also could mean cost savings.

“It does not mean there’s no increase in special education; there will be an increase,” Nardelli told the board and audience last week. “What we’re trying to do is be as efficient as we possibly can and still provide the services that are mandated.”

Eliminating several school bus runs also would save money, but the remaining runs would be longer, Nardelli said. The band bus that serves 15-20 students also could be eliminated.

Finally, administrators suggested cutting classroom supplies by $10 per student. The current budget allocates $90 per student for supplies.

Next steps

Four areas should be considered for potential savings in future years, Nardelli said.

Transportation represents $400,000 of the total budget, Nardelli said. Families as Partners discussed cutting buses and starting walking zones for those living closer to school; families who wanted to be picked up could pay. Nardelli said those kinds of changes should not be made quickly without studying the effects.

Moving some of the after-school sports programs to the town budget is another way to reduce the school budget, Nardelli said. In 2003, the after-school ski and ride program was moved to the town’s recreation department.

How classes are configured might affect costs. Getting the school hot lunch program to break even also could lead to savings.

The School Board’s next regularly scheduled meeting following this week is Wednesday, April 11 at 7 p.m. at Champlain Valley Union High School.