Opinion: Superintendent responds to Fayston School Board letter

  • Published in MyView

By Brigid Nease

The Fayston School Board met on December 20 and then held a special meeting, to write and send a letter out to the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board and wider community. This is my response. We developed a budget process together as administration and the HUUSD board to create our first unified budget. All local budgets were shared from this fiscal year. HUUSD Board members became familiar with differences and inequities in our schools. Lists of asks/needs by each building were shared and discussed. Michelle Baker and I came back to the board with an integrated version of those asks, settling most of the decision points, including a plan for technology and maintenance. Next, we began looking at enrollment and staffing building by building. My recommendations were made while comparing and contrasting the data for all six towns’ taxpayers and all seven schools’ needs. Final decisions have not been made.

The Fayston School Board letter does not disagree with my recommendations or take a counter position based on data. It says I am not holding up my promises to taxpayers and unfairly characterizes my recommendation as ineffectual and contrary to the interest of students. We are using almost the identical process in developing this HUUSD budget as we have at each local board table. I presented enrollment data and made recommendations based on standards and policies. Whatever increases have been suggested will be deliberated and decided upon by the HUUSD Board. To characterize recommended increases as not directly supporting the education of our students is simply untrue. These recommended increases should not be related to staff reduction recommendations. If we make a decision to reduce staff, it doesn't mean we agree to not spend any additional money elsewhere.

I recommend the staff reductions because:

1) None of the other schools have an on-staff full-time sub, which Fayston does. Fayston made it work because they were willing to pay for the position in their budget, which did not affect anyone else's tax rate. Because the position was not a union position and because FES does not pay any benefits until an employee has worked at FES for two years and because the position has usually changed over before becoming eligible to receive health and dental benefits, the FES board continued to find it affordable. If this position remains, as soon as we have a ratified agreement this position will be eligible for benefits moving the cost from approximately $21K to $41K. In addition to the cost, this is an equity piece among the schools. I know of no other school in Vermont with an on-staff sub.

2) The first and second grades at FES can be combined for a class of 19 next year. We have many classes of 18 to 21 in our schools. This recommendation is based on the Articles of Agreement, state standards and our class-size policy. According to the December 6 data, only seven Fayston first-graders are projected next year. Classes of 19 have always existed in Valley schools.

3) I recommend a reduction of one 5/6 teacher in Warren; instead of three classes of 13 there would be two of 19 and 20. This is in alignment with other schools and Warren's long-standing history. This recommendation is based on the HUUSD Articles of Agreement, the Study Committee Report, state standards and our class-size policy.

At no time were the voters promised that in year one of our merger nothing would change, that we agreed to bring forward the exact same budget, with the same staffing and other expenditures. In fact, our Articles of Agreement state that we would immediately work to find savings and efficiencies and work on student-teacher ratios. We promised taxpayers that we would find savings wherever we could and use those dollars wisely to add and improve programming for students while bringing more equity to all schools and improving student-teacher ratios.

The Fayston School Board misrepresented the decision made by the HUUSD Board regarding the Granville/Hancock bus. Please see my November report. Existing tuition students were surveyed to determine ridership and feasibility. The HUUSD Board unanimously supported the bus and hoped that it would result in more students. We have heard from parents from Granville and Hancock at a Warren School Board meeting requesting that we send a bus route to Granville and Hancock for the tuition students. I agreed to do some preliminary cost projections. The HUUSD Board will decide whether to include this bus in the FY 18 budget. Consider the following:

We have 21 students attending our schools from Granville/Hancock: Pre-K = 3, tuition is $9,276; K-6 = 15, tuition is $187,500; and 7-12 = 3, tuition is $48,000. Tuition is $244,776 for 21 students.
These students attend now without any additional cost. We surveyed these families. Fifteen indicated they would definitely ride the bus, with three maybes. Would a bus bring in more students on tuition?

The annual cost of a bus route would be approximately $57,000. Transportation aid is 43 percent and would start after two years. Without aid for the first two years, the cost would be approximately $2,741 per student tuitioned to HUUSD. After the aid is received, the cost would be approximately $1,562 per student. If more students tuitioned in and rode the bus, the cost per student would go down.

I regret that our team is here. Discourse that feels attacking, offensive and assigns motives will tear apart this otherwise strong team. Disagreeing and taking counter positions can and will happen and needs to happen respectfully with the understanding that we are all working hard and doing the best we can. We all care deeply about all of our schools. And we are acutely aware of our challenges. Michelle and I take direction from the board. If we have misstepped during this initial unified budget development process, tell us that. Develop a budget template with the steps clearly defined that will work for you as we develop and present first-run budgets for next year. If the board as a whole has problems with this year's recommendations being made, then I suggest getting right to work on revising our existing state-required policy on class sizes.

Your feedback on this report is welcome. Please give me a call if you would like to chat.

Nease is the superintendent of Washington West Supervisory Union and the Harwood Unified Union School District. This is an abridged version of a letter she sent out last week. The full version can be found at wwsu.org.