Tension mounts over school budget cuts

New budget vote set for May 8

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The second vote for Williston’s school budget for the 2007-2008 academic year has been set for Tuesday, May 8.

About 16 community members gathered at Williston Central School on Thursday night to give feedback to the Williston School Board and to learn more details about the $15.8 million proposed school budget that voters rejected earlier this month.

The first concerns raised by audience members were about teacher salaries and benefits.

“I want to know what each teacher makes,” said resident Melissa LaFrance, whose sentiments were echoed by several others in the audience. “Not each teacher is making the same amount. I’d like to know what our principals are making. I want to know.”

The average Williston teacher earns $60,924.

“Remember, that’s for 180 days” of teaching, Elizabeth LaStrada said later when discussing teachers’ salaries.

Several audience members said teachers should pay more than their current 10 percent contribution to health insurance premiums.

“If our taxes go up much more, we will have to put our house on the market and sell,” LaFrance said. “We just cannot afford this. … The teachers here in Williston – and I’m not condemning them, I love the school, I think they do an outstanding job. But you know what? The reality is they need to start paying a little more.”

For about one hour, audience members addressed these topics as well as building maintenance, the number of paraeducators, the number of principals, and the impact of new developments on school enrollment.

Several parents also expressed concern that the school day is not longer and full-day kindergarten is not available, in spite of rising taxes.

Parent Mark Fischer emphasized that the community needs to understand that it will be more expensive to taxpayers in the long run if students requiring special education services don’t get their needs met now.

Currently, of the 30 “high needs” special education students – such as those with autism – in the Williston public school system, 20 are in preschool, kindergarten or first grade, District Principal Walter Nardelli said. That means the numbers of students requiring services is growing, not decreasing, so services must expand to meet those needs according to federal requirements.

“I think that message needs to go out to the community,” Fischer said. “We’re not driving a new Cadillac out of the parking lot. We’re trying to shove all these kids into the Chevy we have.”

Staffing levels explained

Williston schools are on target or slightly behind staffing recommendations by the Vermont Department of Education, according to data presented by District Principal Walter Nardelli. For example, the Department of Education recommends that students in grades four through eight have class sizes smaller than 25; Williston on average has 22 fifth through eighth grade students per teacher.

Among Vermont schools, Williston also has the fewest principals per number of teachers and students, Nardelli said.

State recommendations for everything from guidance counselors to school nurses to curriculum also were reviewed. There are no state recommendations for foreign language at the elementary or middle school level, according to Nardelli. Data did not include the role and number of paraeducators and teaching assistants.

How the budget was built

In building the proposed budget, Nardelli said, “everything is level funded; there’s no new programs, there’s no new anything.” Increases come from fixed costs like salaries, utilities, and insurance premiums, Nardelli said, and expansion of special education services to meet the growing demand.

Those changes, Nardelli said, represented a 6.5 percent budget increase, excluding Medicaid funds for which there are equal expenses and revenue.

“That was really without changing anything except special education,” he said. Roughly $350,000 in special education services was added to the budget; about 40 percent of that is reimbursed from the government.

Roughly $53,400 then was cut in areas such as equipment leasing contracts, gas and electricity, and part of a special education preschool program. Additions costing the same amount were added, Nardelli said. A current first and second grade math intervention position was bumped from a paraeducator to an 80-percent-time teacher to expand teaching hours, Nardelli said.

Other additions included a part-time foreign language teacher, slightly expanding hours of technology staff, adding 10-percent-time to a math enrichment instructor who is qualified to teach students beyond discrete math, and putting funding toward the Connecting Youth mentoring program.

Now, Nardelli said, every part of the budget is “back on the table.” Community members, parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members must determine together what Williston education should look like.

“What we have to remember is these are real kids; these aren’t just numbers,” Nardelli said. “What we have to figure out is what can we afford and what is the education we want for them.”

What’s next

The School Board asked administrators to come back this week with recommendations on cutting the budget by one half, one and two percentage points. For every percentage point, approximately $147,000 must be cut.

The School Board is scheduled to meet this Thursday and next. The board expects to approve the new budget on Wednesday, April 11 at their regularly scheduled 7 p.m. meeting at CVU High School.