After extensive discussion about the timing of it, Washington West’s full board voted 15-5 to add a new position at the Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) offices at a cost of $81,823.
The board, at a January 13 meeting, received a budget presentation from WWSU business manager Michelle Baker. She explained the three components of the budget, including the general fund which is assessed on equalized pupils per schools and is going up 11 percent. The special education component, which centralizes all special education services in the central office, as required by Act 156, is going up 3 percent. Finally, transportation services are going up 3 percent.
The general budget increase of 11 percent comes from a 2 percent increase ($26,191) in central office salaries, health costs, etc. Software costs contribute 3 percent of that 11 percent increase, adding $38,050 to the budget. The new full-time project manager position represents 6.3 percent of the 11 percent increase in the budget, adding $81,823 in salary and benefits to the budget. The cost of the new project manager position throughout the district adds $45 to the cost of each equalized pupil.
This year’s WWSU budget comes in at $1,434,927, up from last year’s $1,288,863. Last year the WWSU budget represented 3.7 percent of all general fund budgets in the district. This year it represents 4.1 percent with the new position and 3.8 percent without it.
It was the proposed new position that created the most discussion during the meeting, in particular whether now, pre-Act 46 school board consolidation vote, was the right time to be going to voters seeking to staff a new position at the central office.
WWSU superintendent Brigid Scheffert Nease told the group that they didn’t understand how “dire” things are at the central office in terms of getting the work done with the new state mandates and now Act 46.
“Let me play devil’s advocate,” said Warren representative Rob Rosen. “Act 46 is telling people that there are all sorts of economies of scale to be gained by consolidating. If we’re asking voters to approve more staff at the district level, isn’t this proof that consolidation is going to create more expense?”
Scheffert Nease said that the problem has existed and the district office has taken on more and more and more.
“We operate with 12 people. Compared to other supervisory unions of our size with seven boards, seven schools, 330 employees, many operate with more people than we do. Many supervisory unions of our size have bookkeepers,” Scheffert Nease said.
She detailed some of the additional including Act 166 regarding pre-K and Act 156 regarding centralizing all special eds costs within the district as factors for needing a middle level manager for the project manager position. She noted that WWSU had taken on the collective bargaining work that had been hired out in the past and said that WWSU also handled all human resources issues.
“We realize the timing for this is terrible. We’re crushing over there. We’re not going to be able to continue with this workload. We can’t respond to the number of you who send us individual emails and phones calls. We can’t keep up with that,” she said.
Several board members spoke favorably of the great work they’d seen coming out of the central offices and urged fellow board members to support adding the position.
Heidi Spear, Fayston school board chair, suggested accessing funds that range from $120,000 to $150,000 to fund the new position. Others pointed out that access to those funds comes only after a successful Act 46 consolidation vote.
“No one is saying the work at the central office isn’t excellent. Maybe a better time to have this conversation would be a year from now. Next year we may have the tax incentives to pay for the resources we need. Why not wait? This has been a grueling budget year. I’d have a hard time going to my constituents with this. The timing of this is really bad,” said Warren school board member Adam Greshin.
Jill Ellis, a Fayston representative, said she felt revisiting the issue of adding staff to the central office until after a positive consolidation vote would be a “far more palatable approach.”
Alycia Biondo, a Warren representative, asked if it would be possible, since the new person is going to take on the work of those already there, for the existing employees to take a wage cut.
“No, we’re getting too much new work,” Scheffert Nease said.
Waterbury-Duxbury rep Dale Smeltzer said it was her impression that all the extra workload already exists and it not related to Act 46.
“It’s bad timing, but we’re going to pay more by not doing it,” she said.
“I don’t agree there’s never not a good time to invest in the central office. Businesses invest in new people when they are building customers. This supervisory union has been losing students for the seven years you mention. We’re down 7 percent. Costs are amortized over the number of people using the services. It’s not an appropriate time. We’ve sat in this room and looked at slide of the ratios of adults to kids and we’ve said, ‘Those ratios are going in the wrong direction.’ It’s a tough argument to build up admin when we’re losing students and we’re cutting teachers,” Greshin said.
‘There are a lot of bets being put down now. The Act 46 deciders are not sitting in this room tonight. You can’t argue the fact that by investing in this you’re going to lengthen the odds that voters will consolidate,” Rosen said.
Eva Frankel, from the Waitsfield School Board, who was facilitating the meeting, said that for her family, middle class, the pain of paying for property taxes had reached a breaking point and she said that the proposal had real tax implications, which are no reflection on the good work of the central office.