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As the chair of the Washington West Supervisory Union executive committee, I’d like to offer some thoughts on the supervisory union (SU) budget that we passed last week. As was reported in The Valley Reporter, there was a vigorous and respectful debate about the proposed increase of 9.9 percent in the central office budget. Questions were raised about a disproportionate rise in central office spending compared to local schools; about a pay raise for our superintendent, 8 percent this year; and about the general message this budget might send to our community in a time of economic hardship.
Despite these legitimate questions, the executive committee—made up of community members from every town in the supervisory union and from the Harwood board—overwhelmingly supported this budget, and I’d like to explain why.
First of all, our central office has historically been quite lean. In 2010, the most recent year that comparable data is available, central office costs represented only 2.8 percent of the overall expenditures in our supervisory union. This is lower than every adjacent SU, including: Washington Central (4.8 percent); Washington Northeast (4.4 percent); Washington South (4.8 percent); Lamoille South (3.7 percent); and Lamoille North (6.4 percent). Barre was the only nearby SU that spent a lower percentage than us, at 2.1 percent. We are not leaping ahead disproportionately; we’re catching up.
Of course there is no need to catch up if things are going along just fine, but they haven’t been. Our schools generally are experiencing declining enrollment, with increasing costs; we’ve had instability in school leadership, with several principal transitions; a constantly shifting state and federal regulatory landscape; and increasing special education costs and needs, just to name a few. The simple truth is that in this very complex environment we need vigorous, consistent leadership at the central office to help us. They provide the data and perspective we need to make careful, considered decisions about how to maintain our outstanding educational quality and even improve it under diminished circumstances. But they cannot do it on the cheap. The contention that they can do more with less simply does not ring true for those of us in the community who have been intimately involved with their work.
Regarding the superintendent’s salary, we faced a similar situation. The pay our SU offered was significantly lower than adjacent districts. Two years into a tenure marked by overwhelmingly positive performance reviews, we began to worry that we might not be able to retain our superintendent, yet again. After having five superintendents in the past 12 years and noting the significant opportunity and financial costs in the endless transitions and searches, we felt that it was absolutely imperative to craft a contract that brought us into line with other districts in the hopes of maintaining steady, consistent leadership. We feel our children need and deserve no less, and that Brigid Scheffert is providing us with extraordinary value—as is the rest of the central office staff.
Much more could be said: that Harwood’s business functions are now managed through the SU, contributing to an increase several years ago in central office costs that decreased costs at Harwood for all district taxpayers; the way our central office staff has assisted local districts in crafting level or near-level funded budgets over the past several years, one proof among many of their value; a decade of increasing state and federal mandates that require the ever-increasing attention and time of our staff; exponentially increasing technology needs over the past decade; multiple principal searches; ongoing personnel issues; the list goes on.
Lastly, it is important to note that the central office budget is a tiny percentage of our overall SU spending: roughly $1 million out of $40 million. Although the percentage increase this year is high, the absolute increase is a small fraction of our overall educational spending. As one of our board members stated at the meeting last week, the central office budget is not what is driving up educational costs and property taxes: it is per-pupil spending. And our feeling at the executive committee is that the central office—as constructed in this current budget—has the potential to provide us with the data and the tools to make informed decisions about this far larger issue of per-pupil spending. Without their help we will be making decisions largely in the dark and to the detriment of our students and taxpayers. This is an investment we need to make in the long-term health, accountability and viability of our school system, and I urge the Washington West community to support it.
Smith lives in Duxbury.