Jan. 29, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Amidst a bad economy and a threat of two votes to pass the school budget, the Williston School Board was able to cut and save its way to only a 0.3 percent increase over last year. The total budget, which will be brought to voters in March, comes to $16.32 million, $49,000 more than last year’s budget.

The board unanimously approved the budget during last Thursday’s final budget meeting.

Next year’s budget reflected many cost saving measures in health insurance. It also came at the cost of cutting a classroom teacher position, as well as one teaching assistant and two paraeducators. District Principal Walter Nardelli explained in previous meetings that class size and services would not be affected due to slight declines in enrollment.

Marty Sundby, a former School Board member and current budget buddy — a resident who helps the board make budget decisions — said she couldn’t remember ever seeing an increase as low as this year’s. In fact, last year’s 3 percent increase was the lowest most people at the meeting could think of before the new budget.

“Of all my years on the School Board we never could have done this,” Sundby said, adding that in her years, Williston experienced significant enrollment increases.

One impetus to save money was the penalties of Act 82. Early in the budget process, the board learned that it had to cut $325,000 from its baseline to fall under the two-vote penalty. Act 82 is a new state bill from last year that penalizes school districts that exceed a state average in budget increases.

School Board Chairwoman Darlene Worth asked if Act 82 would become an issue again during next year’s budget process. Bob Mason, chief operations officer for Chittenden South Supervisory Union, said it would depend on the average percentage increases of every district in the state in this year’s budgets. Unless most districts have small increases, then Williston should be in the clear, he explained.

“It’s a question of where the average lands next year,” Mason said.

Mason also outlined the articles voters would be asked to approve on Town Meeting Day on March 3. One article asks voters to approve a reserve fund for future construction projects, in which Mason said the school would put existing money.

“It’s just to set it up, not spend money or anything,” he said.

Voters will be able to approve that piece by voice vote on Town Meeting Day, before the polls open the next day.

The Tuesday ballots will include the approval of $150,000 of the district’s current fund balance from 2008-2009 and move it over to next year’s budget. The question is asked every year of voters, Mason said.

Residents will also vote on the purchase of a new bus for $105,000 to replace an old bus, another question that is asked every year. Finally, voters will be asked to approve of the current $200,000 in construction funds to be applied to the elevator project — an elevator needs to be built at Williston Central School for the district to become compliant with American Disability Association guidelines. Overall, School Board members were happy to keep the budget increase low while maintaining  good service to Williston’s students. The administration was also very pleased.

“I’m just amazed,” said John Terko, principal of Allen Brook School. “I’ve never seen it so low.”

“And it’s still a good budget for kids,” said Jackie Parks, principal of Williston Central School.