Required spending vexes GM finance panel Tasks administration with finding cuts, lowering increases

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2018 Telegraph Publishing LLC

TRSU Business Manager Cheryl Hammond presents the first version of the GMUSD budget on Nov. 15 Photos by Shawn Cunningham

After four meetings, the Green Mountain Unified School District’s Finance Committee elected to punt last Thursday night. Staring down a nearly 6 percent increase for the 2020 fiscal year (which begins on July 1, 2019) the board sent the budget back to the administration with the directive to cut the increase approximately in half. With the holidays just ahead and a mid-January deadline for printing the budget for Town Meeting looming after New Year’s Day, the pressure is increasing on the committee. Here’s a recap to date:

Nov. 15: $13 million spending plan presented

At its first meeting for the FY20 budget, the finance committee was presented with 42-page, line-by-line spending plan for $13,076,204, which represented an increase of 4.34 percent over the budget that passed in May on its second vote. (For an explanation of how to read that budget, click here.) The budget was accompanied by a single page of notes that outlines the items added to the plan.

The additions included:

  • An assistant principal at Chester-Andover Elementary for $74,355.
  • Two more paraeducators for CAES for $61,234.
  • A full-time substitute teacher for the district at $57,980.
  • A grade 7-12 math interventionist Green Mountain High School at $66,086.
  • A half-time “capstone” coordinator at GM for $27,266.
  • Increase the GM Spanish teacher from five periods a day to six for $9,171
  • An in-school suspension/lunch duty para-educator for GMHS for $30,963.
  • Payments on the GMHS roof bond of $24,360.
  • One special ed paraeducator at GMHS for $23,524.
  • A fence for Cavendish Town Elementary for $9,000. (This was listed in the operating budget although it appears to be a capital expense.)
  • The need to replace the 60 year-old CTES oil tank and the recommendation of the transportation committee for bus service were also noted.
  • A tuition hike to $17,000 for Baltimore students attending Springfield schools adding $46,000.
  • A FY18 deficit of $141,997, $93,000 of which was the take-back of healthcare insurance savings the district  negotiated with employees.

Nov. 29: $217,000 in additional expenses sought

Finance committee member Joe Fromberger questions the addition of an assistant principal for CAES based on the student population

At the second meeting, the administration presented the new spending above, broken into a list of prioritized potential hires and a list of items that are required, including some hires that have already taken place in this year since they were special education hires mandated by Individual Education Plans.  There were also about $217,000 in additional expenses requested bringing the total increase over this year’s budgetof $761,283. Once again, the session was only an hour long and much of the discussion focused on the rationale for each expenditure and how the priorities for new positions were arrived at.

Among the additional expenditures in the second cut at the budget were stipends for “teacher leaders” of $18,196, adjustments to tuition for pre-k students and for one high school student attending school out of the district ($23,010), a bus payment of $148,000 and increases in the Supervisory Union charges for its services.

According to Curriculum Director Michael Eppolito and Superintendent Meg Powden, the teacher leader stipends were inaccurate and restated as $7,200 or $1,200 per teacher with two teachers coming from each of the district’s three schools. Currently three teachers volunteer to put together the in-service days for the district. With the added money, Eppolito envisions them for helping with curriculum development.

Dec. 5: Two hours on budget; one on justifying CAES assistant principal

The first slide in a presentation advocating the hiring of an assistant principal at CAES presented by principal Katherine Fogg

While the third finance committee meeting was the first that was scheduled for two hours rather than one, a Power Point presentation and staff comments justifying the creation of an assistant principal position at CAES absorbed the first hour of the meeting. CAES Principal Katherine Fogg pointed to the time period when the school did have an assistant principal under Penny Kraft and while the school has fewer students now than it did then, Fogg argues that the headcount has been growing and that these are different times with more kids suffering from trauma.

Fogg told the committee that if she did not have the behavioral problems to deal with she could put more time into staff observation, collaboration, meetings and development of instructional strategies in addition to initiatives like outdoor learning, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) and foreign language.

Green Mountain High School Principal Lauren Fierman spoke in favor of the proposed math coach/interventionist for grades 7 – 12 and for increasing the 83 percent Spanish teacher to full-time. Fierman said that many of students who need additional math help are unable to get it because the math faculty is so heavily scheduled. She also noted that the demand for Spanish has increased and adding another period would reduce the class sizes and add flexibility in the scheduling of students.

Fierman told the committee that she knew she could not have everything and that while having the “capstone” coordinator and the paraeducator for in-school suspension and to cover lunch would be nice, she wanted to keep the focus on the math and Spanish.

Dec. 13: Attempts to fill the gaps and make cuts

Even with several of the proposed expenditures trimmed from the budget, committee members struggled with a budget $705,812 or 5.63 percent larger than the one approved by a small number of voters on a second vote last May.

Looking for ways to close the gap, committee members suggested using capital and transportation reserve funds to pay for several items like safety fencing, the oil tank replacement and replacement of foldup lunch tables that have become a safety issue. All three of those are at Cavendish Elementary. No conclusions were reached. Committee member Mike Studin suggested that if the goal is to increase educational opportunities as was discussed during the Act 46 process, “we might need to dip into some of these reserve funds” for capital and safety items.

Committee chair Marilyn Mahusky voices frustration at not adding the educational opportunities promised in Act 46. “I want to see that become a priority…”

The committee also looked at using GMUSD’s portion of the transition funds received as part of the Act 46 merger to help with the budget. Since those funds must be used by July 1, 2019, the money could help by removing line items from the FY20 budget. In addition, community member Sara Stowell suggested looking at grant funding for things like the fence and lunch tables. Committee chair Marilyn Mahusky asked the administration to come back with more information on these.

Mahusky noted that the board of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union had recently asked the SU to level-fund its budget, although committee member Joe Fromberger pointed to the transfer of technology expenses to the districts that allowed the SU to increase in a couple of areas and thus increase the district budgets.

Pointing to the current rate of inflation, Fromberger suggested choosing a level of increase close to that and sending the budget back to the SU to find the cuts. Fromberger said he would be more comfortable selling an increase somewhere between 2.5 and 3 percent voters.

“We usually do a pretty good job of keeping our budgets below a threshold but I think 2.5 is unrealistic,” said Mahusky, “I’d be happy to talk as high at 3.5 percent.”

“You know me,” said Fromberger, “I want to make it as palatable as possible and pass the budget on the first time around. I don’t know what the magic number is but for me it’s 2.5, not 5.5.”

“I’m frustrated that we aren’t going to add some of these things that are really important,” said Mahusky, noting the CAES assistant principal and GM math interventionist. “We talked about (elementary Spanish) last year and there’s been no progress made on that. I want to see that become a priority – that’s really important to our kids and it was a promise made last year.”

While no firm percentage limit on the increases was established, the administration was tasked with bringing back a number of pieces of information and a fourth cut at the budget with greater limits on the increase – in the range of 3 to 3.5 percent.

A meeting to receive and discuss the information requested by the committee has been scheduled for 5 p.m. on Thursday Dec. 20 at Cavendish Town Elementary School, 573 Main St. in Proctorsville  Green Mountain High School, 716 Rt. 103 South in Chester. The committee does not expect to make a recommendation to the full board on that evening and may need one or more meetings in January. The committee meeting will be followed by a full board meeting at 6 p.m. A discussion of the budget by the full board is on the agenda for that meeting, but that item is next to last on a long agenda.

The full board’s first monthly meeting of the new year is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 17, also at Cavendish Town Elementary School, 573 Main Street, Proctorsville. The budget must be approved then to make the printing deadline for March Town Meeting votes.

 

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