School budget cuts ahead

2003 budget cuts still felt

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The Williston School Board will plow ahead this week with cutting the school budget rejected by Williston voters earlier this month. As the community weighs in, the board may hear about the fallout of the last failed budget in 2003.

For the next three weeks, school administrators and board members will meet every Thursday at 6 p.m. at Williston Central School to hear community concerns and make decisions about what to scale back. Board chairwoman Darlene Worth said by the next regularly scheduled board meeting – Wednesday, April 11 at Champlain Valley Union High School – she expects to have the new budget. The date of the second vote is expected to be set this week, but likely will be in May.

The enormity of the task ahead for the board and school administrators was clear at last week’s regularly scheduled board meeting.

“We know we’re going to lower the budget; we just don’t know how,” Williston School District Principal Walter Nardelli told the board.

“You can easily get into the numbers so far that it doesn’t look like education as usual in Williston,” Nardelli said. Finding the balance between protecting student programs while also responding to the public’s vote will be a challenge, Nardelli told them.

Earlier in the meeting, the school district’s literacy and math coordinators reported the results of the New England Common Assessment Program tests students took last fall. While overall Williston students outperformed state averages, boys lag behind girls significantly in reading and writing and students from economically poorer households lag behind their peers in all subject areas – a trend consistent at the state and national levels.

“We have some very needy students,” Nardelli said, referring to those statistics. “If we start cutting all resources, we’re not going to be addressing those needs.”

Finding the mark

Board members struggled to determine how much the budget must be cut in order to win public support.

The failed budget came in at $15.9 million, 7 percent higher than the current budget. In actual new spending, the proposal reflected a 6.5 percent increase due to recommended accounting changes. (Medicaid expenditures, for example, were listed as expenses for the first time this year, even though there is an equal amount of revenue.)

Champlain Valley Union High School saw a 4.98 percent budget increase pass this year. CVU High School is the only school in the supervisory union, other than Williston’s schools, without declining enrollment.

“People thought their taxes went up quite a bit last year,” School Board Chairwoman Darlene Worth said at last week’s meeting. “Now they’re seeing all this new building in town – the police and fire station – and they don’t want to see our increase.”

“I feel like (the increase) has got to be under 6 percent, that’s what I was hearing,” board member Holly Rouelle said.

A six percent increase would reduce the proposed budget by roughly $300,000.

What to cut

At the same time the public has asked for budget cuts, Chittenden South Supervisory Union Superintendent Elaine Pinckney said last week, there are people who won’t want those cuts. That was the case in 2003, she said, the last time Williston saw a school budget fail.

That year the community went to the polls a total of four times before the budget passed. The more than $350,000 cut from the budget had a lasting impact, according to Pinckney, who was district principal in Williston in 2003.

“Up until that time we had grade five to eight world language,” Pinckney said. Fifth grade foreign language offerings were cut that year, and have not been reinstated. “The research is clear the earlier you start (with a foreign language), the more effective you are.”

Interest in foreign language classes continues to increase, with some classes having more than 25 students – not ideal for new language learning, Pinckney said.

A part-time librarian position also was cut that year and not reinstated, Pinckney said

“ What that has resulted in is one day a week there isn’t a librarian at Allen Brook School,” she said. “You can check out a book, but there are no research services or book talks.”

The School Board sliced the budget by $140,000 the first time after the budget failed in 2003, resulting in a proposed increase of 4.7 percent. Other cuts that month included a part-time enrichment teacher, field trip transportation, a part-time special education secretary, two hours/day for an Allen Brook School receptionist, one hour a day for discipline staff, and the after-school ski program.

That budget passed by 21 votes in April 2003. Some residents petitioned for a revote, citing rising property taxes and discontent over school budget supporters targeting parents for a get-out-the-vote campaign. The May re-vote failed by 194 votes.

The board then went back and cut an additional $217,500 – a 2.8 percent budget increase, but a drop in per-pupil spending given rising enrollment. That budget passed in June by a healthy margin.

Of the cuts made that year, Pinckney said, the enrichment teacher and disciplinary staff time have been added back in the last three years. The ski and ride program was moved to the town recreation budget.

Not only programs and services will be on the proverbial chopping block this year. Since no teacher contract is signed for the next budget year, Chairwoman Worth said scaling back anticipated increases in that area is “an option.”

The proposed budget indicates roughly 6.5 percent additional monies were set aside under “instructional programs” for salaries and benefits.

“We’ll be listening for what our community members are saying,” Worth said.