TRSU panel nixes Powden raise; full board rejects budget, demands clarity

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2018 Telegraph Publishing LLC

On Thursday night, the Executive Committee of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union deleted from the TRSU budget Superintendent Meg Powden’s  5.58 percent raise that would have taken her salary from $125,580 to $132,590.

With the Executive Committee meeting running over, TRSU board members mill about before a 6 p.m. start. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Later, the full TRSU board sent the entire budget back to the central office for retooling, which some board members say will show a six figure increase rather than a modest decrease.

Executive Committee member Marilyn Mahusky of Chester questioned a number of items in the budget, but when she got to the Powden raise and asked where it had come from, chairman Bob Herbst of Mt. Holly said that the panel would have to go into executive session to discuss that.

The 29-minute session ended with Herbst moving into the full board meeting saying that the raise was out of the budget and a contingency line allowing for average raises of 2.5 percent for the entire staff had been increased. According to Herbst, a performance review of Powden would be conducted before any decisions would be made about raises or her contract.

While Herbst characterized the budget number as a reduction, board member Doug McBride of Cavendish questioned several areas in which costs previously in the supervisory union budget had been transferred to the budgets of individual schools. Noting that the supervisory union’s budget appeared to be 4.52 percent less than last year, McBride noted that if these transfers were added back in for comparison, it would show an increase of roughly $224,000 and that this was a problem of how the budget was presented.

Powden acknowledged the point and told the board she wanted to make improvements in the presentation for next year.

“A few hundred grand on a $6 million budget may not seem like that much, but if you figure a new teacher with benefits is $50,000,” McBride said, that $200,000 would fund a foreign language “teacher, a drama teacher, a STEM teacher.”

Board members Marilyn Mahusky, left, and Doug Mc Bride, right listen as Superintendent Meg Powden answers a question on the TRSU budget.

“When I think about what we did in Act 46, and then I look at what this budget does to promote those goals from Act 46, I don’t see enough of those goals,” said McBride, repeating a sentiment he expressed at the last GMUSD board meeting. “I don’t see new programs enhancing children’s education reflected in this budget.”

McBride said that a bigger question is why Special Education is a single line item of $3.6 million in an overall budget of $6.2 million. Referring to a statement by Gov. Phil Scott, McBride noted that Vermont spends between 150 percent and 300 percent more than other states on special ed while getting comparable results.

By state law, special education was pulled out of school budgets and transferred to supervisory unions, which administer the program and bills the schools. McBride acknowledged that students have a right to have their particular needs addressed through special education, but that presenting more than half the budget without any detail was unacceptable.

Referring to his Navy service, board member Dave Venter likened the supervisory union to support troops like supply officers rather than those on the firing line in battle and asked the administration to ask itself if their budget requests were a necessity to help the kids in school.

U-39 chair Bruce Schmidt, speaking as a member of the audience, calls the budget ‘sloppy.’

Calling the budget “sloppy,” U-39 chair Bruce Schmidt complained the budget is being rushed. It was originally to be considered on Jan. 4, but a snowstorm caused the meeting to be canceled and Schmidt noted that the supervisory union waited 27 days for the next session.

The TRSU board needs to adopt the same mentality as the school board when it comes to setting the budget, Schmidt said, “and I’m not sure there is.”

Schmidt added that there is a problem with trust in what the central office is doing. People, including board members, he said, see a disconnect with the central office. “A lot of us have this distrust,” he said, adding, “we’ve got to find a way to work together because it’s not getting any easier for us.”

Schmidt then told the board that he was not in favor of the supervisory union budget.

After voting down the budget by a wide margin, the board asked the supervisory union business office to go back to the drawing board and return with more specificity,  showing the net budget including money shifted from one entity to another.

“$3.6 million deserves a lot of line items,” said McBride referring to the special ed budget.

TRSU’s bumpy road

The rejection of the central office budget is playing out in a larger context of upheaval within Two Rivers. On Jan. 17, with a deadline looming to put a budget before the voters, the Green Mountain Unified School District board reluctantly passed a budget that members criticized for not delivering on Act 46 goals of increasing educational opportunities but which added administration instead.

Longtime school board member Alison DesLauriers explains the complexities of Act 46 at a public meeting in Andover in 2017. DesLauriers resigned from three of the boards she has served on effective Jan. 30, 2018

And at the other end of the supervisory union, the merger of Mt. Holly and Ludlow into one district, which includes the closing of Black River High School, is uncertain as Ludlow voters have demanded a re-vote, which will take place on Tuesday, Feb. 6.

Also, at the executive committee, Powden announced that longtime board member Alison DesLauriers had resigned from the TRSU, Green Mountain High and Green Mountain Unified School District boards.

In a letter emailed to the boards, DesLauriers cited “increased personal and family responsibilities over the past year” as the reason for stepping down. DesLauriers said she would continue on the Chester Town School Board until it dissolves later this year and complete her time as Treasurer of Chester-Andover Elementary School.

“I have enjoyed my service to the community and find it is simply the right time for me to move forward,” DesLauriers wrote. “I believe the current makeup of the boards will provide solid stewardship of our schools on behalf of our students and communities.”

A special meeting of the TRSU board to consider the reworked budget will be held at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 15 at Cavendish Town Elementary School, 573 Main St. in Proctorsville.

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