School Board wants lean budget

Dec. 22, 2010

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

In an effort to keep costs low for taxpayers, the Williston School Board wants to see no increase from this year’s school budget to the next.

Board members asked school administrators to find ways to keep costs on par with this year — or even decrease costs — while upgrading the district as needed, School Board Chairwoman Holly Rouelle said.

At the same time, the board rejected a state request to lower the district’s net spending by 2 percent as suggested by the Vermont Legislature’s Challenges for Change bill. Rouelle said the cuts required to meet the challenge appeared too extreme.

“We all felt unanimously that it was too much,” Rouelle said. “It would have cut too much of what makes Williston special.”

The current 2010-2011 school budget is expected to be $16.32 million. Bob Mason, Chittenden South Supervisory Union’s chief operating officer, said Williston would need to cut more than $360,000 from last year’s budget to meet the Challenges for Change goals.

Earlier this month, Nardelli showed the board how the Challenges for Change cuts might affect the school district. Personnel costs would need to be reduced by $206,000, requiring layoffs of essential staff. The school would also need to delete a bus run, adding more strain to the transportation system, Nardelli said. He told the board these cuts would significantly reduce services for students and leave the district on the financial edge with no backup plan should some unpredictable event occur.

Williston isn’t the only school district in CSSU to turn down the Challenges for Change recommendations. Charlotte and Champlain Valley Union High School also said no to the suggested cuts. Hinesburg and Shelburne indicated they could meet the challenge.

Rouelle said that while the board hopes to keep next year’s budget nearly equal with this year’s, the district still needs to limit its costs.

Nardelli said the school might be able to reduce this year’s budget by as much as $238,000 and still maintain quality programs. Through staff attrition and computer software changes, cuts might be implemented with minimal effects to students, he said.

At the same time, the district needs to make important additions. With Williston’s eighth grade students lagging behind the state in science test scores, Nardelli said new science materials, along with a science lab and classroom, are necessary to reverse the district’s declining performances on standardized tests. The science lab and classroom alone is estimated to cost upwards of $45,000, Nardelli said.

Also, the district is in need of a school counselor, a social worker and a behavior specialist. These part time positions would add $121,000 to the budget. In addition, Nardelli asked the board to consider adding another full-time world languages teacher at a cost of $74,000.

On top of these supplements, Nardelli said Williston Central is in dire need of boiler upgrades. The current boilers are more than 45 years old and parts are becoming scarce if the three heating oil tanks break. School officials approached the School Board last year about the boiler issue, but it was decided to wait on replacements since the cost was deemed too high. Now they can’t be ignored, Nardelli said.

Replacing one boiler may cost between $153,000 and $166,000, although the school might be eligible for rebates from Efficiency Vermont. Instead of tacking on the boiler to next year’s budget, Rouelle said the board is considering asking voters to approve a separate bond.

“Taxpayers will hopefully be supportive of that,” she said.

By keeping next year’s budget level funded or even reducing it by 1 percent — $163,000 — Rouelle hopes the board can make essential changes while easing the burden on taxpayers.

“Every year, we’ve been cutting and cutting and cutting, but it’s necessary,” Rouelle said. “Next year is looking as grim as this year.”

The School Board plans on revisiting the budget on Jan. 6.