School budget draft $15M

No services or programs added

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The $15 million price tag of the first draft of the 2006-2007 Williston School District budget includes no additions or reductions in programs or services. The $1.373 million increase is nearly 10 percent higher than this year’s budget.

The actual bottom line for taxpayers, however, would be an increase of 8.19 percent; nearly $250,000 of the increase is due to a change in accounting practices. Additions or reductions in programs and services will be considered in the coming weeks.

Williston School District officials presented the first draft of the budget to the school board and four community members last Wednesday night. The meeting – what district principal Walter Nardelli called a “10,000-foot overview” – was the first of four to develop a budget that will be adopted on Jan. 19.

The Williston School District serves students in kindergarten through eighth grades; Champlain Valley Union High School has a separate budget process.

“Even though this is a flat budget, a lot of expenses are up – expenses that we have no control over,” said Williston School Board Chairwoman Marty Sundby, citing as examples health insurance and heat. Figuring out how to offset those increases will be a piece of the board’s job, said Sundby.

A large chunk of the coming year’s budget increase is already settled due to previous negotiations of the current teacher contract. About 35 percent of the draft budget’s itemized increases fall under teacher salaries and benefits, which runs through this coming fiscal year. A 4.55 percent teacher salary increase is required under the current contract, according to Bob Mason, chief operations officer for the Chittenden South Supervisory Union. Health insurance and dental insurance costs are estimated to be up 12 and 10 percent respectively.

Special education and early education for students with disabilities also carry about 35 percent of the itemized increases. A higher number of students are being identified as requiring special education services which, by law, must be provided to all eligible children. State and federal governments reimburse the school district for some special education spending according to regulations: Some expenditures are 55 percent reimbursable; some are 90 percent reimbursable.

Fuel and electricity rates, too, have seen increases – estimated at 10 and 6 percent respectively. Though the rate hikes are unavoidable, total costs may be contained.

“We are working to conserve energy,” Nardelli said, noting that the school is doing an energy audit to determine ways to minimize cost increases.

A change in accounting inflates the budget nearly $250,000. In previous budgets, certain funds, such as Medicaid – for which there are equal expense and revenue – have not been included. Those funds will now be recorded, but as the revenue cancels out expenses, there will be no bottom line increase to taxpayers.

The draft budget also shows itemized decreases. For example, debt payments for construction of Allen Brook School become smaller each fiscal year.

In coming weeks, school officials will present details on potential budget additions. Nardelli presented 25 items of which teachers and staff have requested consideration. Costs range from a couple hundred dollars (for example, additional supply funds for guidance staff) to thousands of dollars (examples include personnel for extended day kindergarten; transportation to lengthen the school day).

School board members will have to prioritize those requests, said Sundby. Nardelli acknowledged the possibility that none of the items might make it into the budget.

Budget affects daily life

Even the smallest of decisions made by the board – both cuts and additions – affect daily life at both schools. Last year, cuts were made across the board in school supplies.

“We have no more supply money; our supply budget is gone,” said Al Myers, a teacher in Swift House at Williston Central School. The Swift House supply budget was cut by about 20 dollars per student. Myers said the team, which serves 87 students, is out of pencils, graph paper, lined paper and index cards – all supplies they’ll need in the spring.

In response, students may need to bring supplies from home, said Myers. He also said that Swift teachers are asking parents who plan to give a teacher a holiday gift to consider giving to the Swift House supply fund instead.

Myers said only one other Williston Central School team has expressed any concern about their supply budget; the other four teams expressed no concerns at a recent meeting.

Margaret Munt, a teacher on Discovery team, said the cuts also have been felt at Allen Brook School in several teams. She emphasized, however, that “the teachers here absolutely appreciate the resources that we have.” In other schools, Munt said, she knows teachers are forced to pay for supplies out of their own pockets.

Both Myers and Munt reflected on the benefits students in both schools have realized as a result of an addition to last year’s budget – the addition of a full-time teacher for the enrichment program. The enrichment program provides activities for students that cultivate special talents, build on individual interests, and extend learning experiences.

Two years ago a part-time enrichment teacher position was eliminated. Last year it was reinstated and made full-time. Munt said that among the benefits to students are the addition this year of a new critical thinking skills program, “great books” literature groups and special math groups.

“Dick Allen was pretty much straight out,” said Myers of the only enrichment teacher last year. “We had very little flexibility if we wanted to collaborate.”

Myers gave as an example the Swift House one-act play festival. In past years, Allen ran a six-week script writing program for students interested in writing. Last year, as a result of the enrichment reductions, the program could not be offered, said Myers.

What’s ahead

Last year the school board approved a nearly 6 percent increase over the 2004-2005 fiscal year budget. Sundby said it is too early for her to predict what the cap should be for the coming year.

“We’ll understand our revenue stream better in January,” she said. “When I have all the pieces put together in front of me, that’s really when I’ll be able to say whether we have a viable budget to bring forward to the community.”

Diane Frank, one of two parents who attended on Wednesday, said the school budget is “not a simple thing. That’s what I got out of it. It’s very multi-layered. I look forward to being able to delve into the particulars.”

Sundby said she hopes to see more community members – parents as well as those without kids in the school system – at future meetings.

“We’re spending the town’s money, and we’re doing the best we can to do so effectively but we can’t read people’s minds,” Sundby said. “So please call or come to the meetings. We need to know what people are thinking. And we want to have a conversation.”