TRSU central office, special ed. budgets OKd after three votes

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2018 Telegraph Publishing LLC

It took three tries and some testy exchanges, but the the board of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union wrestled its way to a slightly smaller budget than proposed on the night of Thursday Feb. 22. Three weeks earlier, it had rejected the SU budget by a wide margin and sent it back to the central office for retooling. Supervisory union budgets are voted by the board not by the public.

Board member Dave Venter (second from right) asks about the procedure for making up the budget. Photos by Shawn Cunningham.

But early in the meeting, several board members including Mt. Holly representative Dave Venter and U-39 board member Dan Buckley pointed out that the central office budget in front of them was the same as the one they had rejected on Feb. 1 and that none of the changes suggested by board members had been made.

Superintendent Meg Powden replied that she had no direction from the board to make changes. But Buckley noted that there were several cuts suggested including a $4,500 line item for “meeting food” and $4,400 for meeting furniture for the central office.

Board chair Bob Herbst of Mt. Holly maintained that the panel had not voted to give Powden the direction to make those changes. But Buckley persisted, saying that the budget was rejected because there were not enough cuts.

Board chair Bob Herbst disagrees with member Dan Buckley on why the budget was rejected on Feb. 1.

“Your opinion,” dismissed Herbst.

One thing that the board did direct the SU to do was to show the details behind the special education spending, which in the Feb. 1 budget had been shown as one $3.6 million line item in a total budget of $6.2 million.

Among several line items that were questioned was transportation. Cavendish representative Doug McBride noted, as chair of the GMUSD committee that hired a consultant to look at the district’s transportation needs, that the SU never told him about the special education transportation budget.

“I never heard that there was another nearly $400,000 in transportation (in the special education budget),” said McBride.

Andover representative Joe Fromberger asserted it was not in the transportation committee’s charge to look at special education expenses.

Board member Doug McBride (second from left) questions how information gets to school board members.

But McBride contended that the knowing about the expense might have led to a better way of delivering the necessary services.

“Next time I’ll ask if there is a second budget,” said McBride.

In addition to not knowing about the transportation details of special education, McBride pointed to several letters addressed to school board members throughout the state that he had not seen until recently. The letters – from Gov. Phil Scott and Agency of Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe – address the questions of school budgets.

“They are addressed to school board members, but I never get them. Who does?” said McBride noting that information in the letters could have been brought up in the budgeting process. “I don’t understand why we don’t get these. Who does?” No one responded that they had either received or not received the letters.

An Oct. 4, 2017 memo on “Managing Staff Attrition” from Holcombe was addressed to “Superintendents, Business Managers and School Board Members.“ It was also copied to several organizations including the Vermont School Boards Association. A Nov. 14, 2017 letter from Gov. Phil Scott is addressed to “Education Leaders” with a section on page 2 (of 5) directly addressing school board members regarding the school budgeting process.

According to Rebecca Kelley, Scott’s communications director, the letter was sent to a list of statewide school leadership including superintendents and business managers and was intended for distribution to school board members.

Herbst dismissed the complaint, saying, “The governor needs to think about what (the state) can do. Costs come from state and federal mandates.”

“I can’t disagree with that,” said McBride. “But they should have been distributed so we could reflect on this.”

The discussion turned toward steps that could be taken to reduce the cost of providing special education including less reliance on paraprofessionals.

Pinch hitting for Finance Director Chris Adams, Cheryl Hammond gives the board a run down on the budget.

After more discussion, Fromberger moved to approve the budget at just a little over $6 million. This represented a $200,000 drop from three weeks ago. Asked where that reduction had come from, Cheryl Hammond, who is standing in for Finance Director Chris Adams who is on leave, said, “The number of students changed.”

That motion was defeated by 9 to 5.

Next, Buckley proposed a level funded budget with several items (including the meeting food and furniture lines) removed. Buckley moved a budget of $5.975 million saying, “I believe there’s room to cut this budget, but I don’t think there was much effort to do it.”

That motion also failed and the board asked for the public’s opinion on the budget.

Mt. Holly board member Sebastian Frank, who was in the audience, said, “It seems strange you would vote a budget down and come back with the same budget. Either cut it or increase it.”  He then turned to Powden and said, “You didn’t do your job … come back with a budget that’s lower.”

“My takeaway was that the board did not have enough information,” replied Powden, who added that it was her understanding that the lack of detail in the special education budget was what defeated the budget.

Venter then moved a budget of $6,018,132, which was the number the SU proposed less $11,900. The cuts included the meeting food and furniture and several other smaller items.

Herbst told the meeting he thought it was irresponsible to fund less than what the SU thinks is needed “for the kids.” The budget passed 9 to 6.

Herbst moved quickly to adjourn, but was reminded by The Chester Telegraph that public comment – which was listed near the bottom of the agenda — must be a part of any meeting of any public body in Vermont.

Cavendish resident Denise Hughes told the board that she heard a lot about things that were “for the kids” but felt that the the panel had “totally missed the mark.” Hughes pointed to the cost of office space for the SU when there is spare space in the schools. She also noted that the budget provided more benefits for people who make “a lot more money than the teachers.”

“The central office gets a lot more benefits than teachers who are doing things for the students,” said Hughes.

Earlier in the evening the board had questioned the newly instituted dental benefits for central office staff, but Powden said those had been negotiated and could not be dropped.

In a brief conversation on Monday, Feb. 26, Powden told The Telegraph that benefits negotiations for central office staff were conducted last year with her representing the staff and Finance Director Adams representing the Supervisory Union. Central office employees are not represented by a union.

“I’m surprised the budget passed,” said Frank who told the board that a lot more could have been cut.

Powden acknowledges rift in governance, urges ‘job shadowing’

Before the budget presentation, Powden made a statement in which she shared her reflections on the recent meetings of the board. Powden said that Finance Director Adams had told her that such meetings would be difficult and she agreed with a statement by U-39 chairman Bruce Schmidt that there “seems to be a rift between the supervisory union and some of the board members,” but she objected to a comment from the last session that “our schools could operate perfectly well without a supervisory union.”

“That indicates to me a lack of understanding of our work and what TRSU personnel provides to our schools,” said Powden.

Powden spoke about all the school employees who are leaders in their fields, teams and professional associations and went on to say that she and her senior managers are “leaders of leaders.” Powden invited board members to “job shadow” SU employees to see what they do.

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  1. Stuart Lindberg says:

    While I served on the school board in Cavendish I attended a conference on education property taxes in Burlington Vermont. I had one superintendent of schools tell me that “Every one of the supervisory unions in the state of Vermont could float down the Connecticut River and no one would notice, except for the fact that everyone in Vermont would have a lot more money and student academic performance would improve.”