School budget draft: $15.8 million

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

School administrators introduced the baseline budget for the 2007-2008 school year to the Williston School Board last week.

The draft budget stands at $15.85 million, up about 7 percent over this year’s budget. Administrators consider this a “baseline” budget because it includes no new programs or positions outside of what is required by special education laws.

The final budget for Williston School District approved by voters last March for the current academic year was a 7.55 percent increase over the previous year. Williston School District serves students pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. A separate budget is built for Champlain Valley Union High School, the public high school available to Williston residents.

Over the next five weeks, the Williston School Board will learn about potential additions. An aggressive renovation of the upstairs bathrooms at Williston Central School, for example, will be on the list of considerations, as will a new set of safety measures including a card entry system and security cameras. This week parent representatives of Families as Partners, a parent-teacher organization, are expected to give their feedback on how to prioritize potential budget additions. Teachers and administrators also will prioritize the list prior to the board making final decisions next month.

About 50 percent of the draft budget increase is in salaries and benefits outside of special education. Annual salary increases for staff like librarians, nurses and custodians are set by a contract that went into effect last year. The coming year’s teachers’ contract is under negotiation; the current contract is set to expire in June. A 5.88 percent increase for teacher salaries and benefits in the budget is an estimate only based on past years.

The other approximately 50 percent of the draft budget increase is in special education programs and staffing, which include contracted salary increases and additional paraprofessional educators and a new position.

“It is not a blip,” District Principal Walter Nardelli told the board, explaining that the number of students with learning and physical disabilities in Williston schools is growing. “It’s two years (in a row) we’ve seen the same numbers. Where other schools have 5 or 10 at the most in EEE we have over 40.”

EEE is Early Essential Education, a federally mandated preschool program for students with disabilities. Williston’s EEE population is disproportionately higher than other schools in the supervisory union, though no one can be certain why, beyond speculation of the program’s strong reputation.

When the number of children enrolled in EEE increases in one year, it is a multi-year commitment to increases in special education spending. As the students leave preschool, many still require the same services in kindergarten, and minimally into first grade. First grade and beyond, because they are full-day programs, unlike preschool and kindergarten, create increased demand.

“There’s a rippling effect as they come through the system,” Nardelli said.

Special education is on the agenda of the Board’s Dec. 14 meeting. On Jan. 4, the board is scheduled to prioritize potential budget additions. Revenue and tax implications will be the focus of the Jan. 11 school board meeting; the board expects to adopt a new budget at its Jan. 18 meeting.