By Lisa Loomis
After a long and emotional school board meeting this week, the Waitsfield School Board put forth a 2015 budget of $2,387,257, which represents a 3.89 percent increase of 2014 expenditures. The board did not cut its music education program or eliminate its French program.
At a well-attended board meeting on January 20 dozens of parents, educators and community members expressed their concerns about proposals to cut the school's music programming from full time to either three or four days a week. Parents and others also voiced concern about the idea of reducing or eliminating the school's French program and eliminating one kindergarten teacher, leaving the other teacher with a class of as many as 20 students.
In addition to potential music and French reductions, the board presented those present with some options for reducing the budget, including replacing a full-time teaching position with a full-time support person, eliminating a .20 math position and replacing that position with a .30 support staff person, cutting a Middlebury College foreign language program, reducing one custodial position to 25 hours a week and reducing technology equipment increases.
Community members asked whether the school could tap the PTA for technology equipment or French versus including it in the budget and board member Rob Williams said he questioned the wisdom of funding school budget items via the PTA.
Waitsfield resident Chris Badger suggested that cutting technology funds this year would just lead to a need to spend it next year.
School principal Kaiya Korb said that if the school level funded the budget (which it can't do because of negotiated contractual wage increases of 1.9 percent for teachers and 0.6 percent for paraeducators) taxes would still go up 2 percent.
Those present discussed whether or not Waitsfield and all Vermont towns should work to vote down their school budgets as a way to send a message to Montpelier that the education funding system is broken. Board chair Eva Frankel spoke of receiving a barrage of emails from people in the community who are upset about education costs rising so steeply and threatening to work to defeat the budget.
Frankel pointed out that because two-thirds of Vermonters are income sensitized, meaning their property taxes are based on their income versus the full bill for their homes, one-third of Vermonters are paying the bulk of the town and the state's education costs. She also noted that the state raids the education fund with regularity, rather than using all the funds collected for education.
"My email inbox was full for lots of different reasons. I was surprised by what I heard from the retirement community, virulent emails stating that they were coming out in force to vote down any increases," Frankel said.
Waitsfield resident Derry Meier asked the board to support a budget with reasonable cuts and suggested that he could and would mobilize Town Meeting voters to vote down the school budget.
"Are you talking about mobilizing against the school budget locally or the governor and Legislature?" Chris Badger asked Meier.
"I'm looking for a budget that balances educational needs with peoples' ability to pay. There are controllable and noncontrollable costs in the proposed budget. Some percentage of increase is beyond our control. If the board doesn't make some effort with the controllable costs people will think this board has made no effort," Meier said.
Beyond budget philosophy, community members and educators spoke passionately about the impact and importance of music education for children's development.
"Music is more than just learning how to play an instrument. Music education teaches discipline, self-esteem and creative expression. Music education at this age has a neurological impact for kids. It translates into special and verbal learning," said one woman at the meeting.
Peg Mehuron, a Waitsfield resident and a music educator in Barre for 30 years, strongly urged the board not to reduce their music program. She said that Harwood Union's music program is one of the best in the state and that it would not be that successful without the elementary schools feeding qualified students into it.
Ultimately, the board adopted a budget with the following reductions and cost savings:
Waitsfield school spending from 2009-2015
"The increased expenses within the budget are not additional programming or staffing, but are primarily a result of fixed costs. Negotiated salary and health benefits account for a 2.9 percent increase in spending. With last year's retirement of our librarian and technology integrationist and subsequent restructuring of those jobs into one position, we created a technology support position shared between The Valley schools. The restructuring of these positions ultimately results in savings; however, creating the line in the budget for the position (WWSU tech coordinator, shared) is new spending of $22,874 or 1 percent. A summary of all increased spending included in the budget follows," Korb explained the day after the meeting.
"The board has been working hard to maintain the quality of education while containing costs and keeping property taxes from escalating over the last several years. These challenges are being faced throughout our state (and beyond). In 2006, the Vermont State education cost per equalized pupil was $9,769. In Waitsfield, the per pupil cost was slightly higher, at $9,839. While our costs have increased over the years, so has the state average. The anticipated per pupil cost of the proposed budget will be $14,741. While we do not yet know the statewide average, our per pupil expense is likely to continue to be slightly above it (last year's statewide average was $13,546). While not all budgets are finalized, our rate of $14,741 is anticipated to be the second lowest in our supervisory union – lower even than our sister school of Thatcher Brook, which has three times as many students. Our school's spending in relation to the statewide per pupil rate is one of the guideposts which the board and administration continue to watch closely," Korb said.
"As next year's school budgets are finalized around our towns this week, a larger story of challenges created by decreased education general funds and increased tax rates set by the state Legislature is echoing across school board meetings and budget discussions," she added.
Korb pointed out that local taxes to fund schools are determined by an array of factors:
a) school expenses (what the school board has control over)
b) revenue (state, federal, grant and other funding opportunities, generally not within the control of the board)
c) the number of students in the school
d) the base education amount (determined by the Legislature)
e) the base tax rate (determined by the Legislature)
"Unlike many schools in our state, Waitsfield's student count not only held steady, but increased slightly this past year. While the board has been wrestling with item a) school expenses, the decrease in revenue and significant increase of the base tax amount results in a tax burden upon the town that does not match the conservative work of the board. This year, Waitsfield School Board faced a scenario where, as a result of a 7 cent increase in the base homestead tax rate (a rate again set by the state Legislature), local taxes to fund just the elementary school would increase by 2 percent even if school spending remained completely frozen," Korb said.
"Our five-year budget increase average is well below the consumer price index; but this trend cannot be maintained. As was evidenced in this year's budget discussions where elimination or reduction of programs was considered, the continued pressure to develop budgets with increases of less than the consumer price index is achievable only through slashing of programming. A budget that has been leanly built for several years can only be reduced further through elimination of curriculum," she added.