Editorial: Vote ‘No’ on GMUSD budget: It’s not ‘for the kids’

By Cynthia Prairie
©2018 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The Chester Telegraph urges the voters of Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish and Chester to vote NO on Tuesday, March 6 on the proposed $12.5 million school budget for the new Green Mountain Unified School District.

The GMUSD school board needs time to retool its budget to offer the added educational opportunities promised under Act 46.

From the very beginning, this budget has been plagued by a lack of transparency, questionable spending priorities and obfuscation by Superintendent Meg Powden. Several school board members have even said privately that if the voters rejected the budget they would have more time to go back and fix it.

So what are the problems?

The first problem is with how the budget is presented. It’s a dense document filled with acronyms that most voters – including some members of the school boards – are not familiar with. Many line items do not describe their purpose and others use terms that can be misunderstood. And line items are being transferred between school budgets and supervisory union budgets without explanation.

Budgets, no matter how large and complex, can be presented in ways that make them clear and transparent. Yes, that takes time, but when educators – whose job it is to explain things – put out opaque budgets, you have to wonder if it’s just a way to stifle questions. The superintendent is accountable to the school board and it is her job to ensure that clarity.

The second problem is that the full school board, despite its claim of holding “many meetings” in its budget report, only met four times to consider the budget between mid-December and mid-January. That’s not enough time to examine and understand a complicated budget in depth, which is the board’s principal responsibility. At the last two meetings, the finance committee deadlocked on even sending the budget to the full board. But by then, the deadline for printing of town reports was looming, so they voted.

The superintendent and the board should have either started earlier or altered the schedule to meet more often. As an example, the Chester municipal budget is one-quarter the size of the school district, but the Select Board worked on it twice a month beginning Nov. 1, 2017 and ending in mid-January of this year.

And there is more: The devil is in the details

Drilling down on some budget details, in November, school Finance Director Chris Adams presented a budget to the finance committee of the school board that included $58,813 for a full-time elementary school Spanish teacher to serve both Chester-Andover and Cavendish Town elementary schools. This component was one of the educational opportunities that convinced many voters to approve the Act 46 merger. And the merger itself was a huge opportunity to look carefully at our school system, reorganize to save money and invest more in our students.

So what were the organizational changes proposed by the superintendent and her senior management team?  It was eliminating the principal position in Cavendish in favor of a less qualified “dean of students” who would report to Principal Katherine Fogg of Chester-Andover Elementary. CAES would also get a “dean of students” for an overall net budget increase.  There was also a proposal to eliminate the current school nurse positions in favor of one registered nurse who would decide what the schools needed in the way of health-care providers who are less expensive than R.N.s. These ideas were shelved “for this year” when angry residents showed up at meetings. Remember that.

Next, Spanish for both elementary schools was dropped in favor of an additional third-grade teacher for CAES. Then that third-grade teacher was dropped to give Fogg a “teaching dean of students” to take dealing with “student issues” off her plate so she could coach teachers. The current budget has an “interim” principal at CTES and a $72,659  “interim teaching dean” at CAES. Any bets on which becomes permanent?

If this budget passes, we believe that the opportunity to improve our schools in the way Act 46 proponents envisioned will have been squandered.

Since a public outcry over the Spanish language elimination, the superintendent’s office tossed a bone to angry parents and put back $10,434 for a “world-language coordinator/instructor,” which is .17 of a full-time position. One bright idea that has been floated would see high school Spanish students teaching elementary school Spanish.

All of this prompts the question: If our superintendent believes that our professionally educated elementary teachers need full-time coaching from their principal, but that high school students can teach elementary Spanish, is she really committed to second-language instruction, with its well-documented developmental benefits?

Of course, we are. We need a full-time Spanish teacher in the elementary schools. What we don’t need at this point is an elementary school “teaching dean,” the .17-FTE “world-language/instructor” and teenagers as Spanish teachers.

The pattern of opaqueness

The opaqueness, confusion and absurdity surrounding the GMUSD budget is no different than what we have seen with the Two Rivers Supervisory Union budget, which covers central office functions and is also created by the superintendent’s office.

Two examples: After a $10,580 raise, which the TRSU executive committee gave Powden last year, she included a $7,010 raise for herself in the 2018-2019 budget, bringing her salary to $132,590.  Powden has less than three years experience as a superintendent. When longtime Superintendent Bruce Williams left TRSU in June 2016, his salary was just $107,200. No TRSU board member with whom we have spoken knew where this most recent raise came from.

Not only that, this raise certainly does not reflect the growing dissatisfaction with Powden that voters are expressing. After a brief executive session, the TRSU board wiped out the raise. (It still appears in the budget because the unapproved budget had to go to the printer before the board made the change.)

However, remaining is nearly $7,000 in dental coverage for full-time central office staff. This is a new benefit that teachers do not receive. When the board questioned the benefits last week, Powden told them that they had been negotiated and could not be dropped. The board did not delve further, and passed the central office budget with a mere $12,000 in cuts.

But we did delve. Who negotiated this binding benefit for this non-union central office staff? On Monday, Powden told The Telegraph that benefits negotiations for central office staff were conducted last year. Powden represented the staff and her employee, Finance Director Chris Adams, represented TRSU.

So who pays? We do of course. Those benefits get passed onto the budgets of the GMUSD and the Ludlow-Mt. Holly Unified Union District. The TRSU board needs to revisit its approval of the central office budget.

Not ‘for the kids’

You will hear in coming days that the budget – as flawed as it is – has to be passed “for the kids.” But it sure doesn’t feel that way.

Powden’s administration-heavy proposals, her lack of transparency and her uncompromising attitude toward the voters, the parents and the children she is supposed to serve and the school board she is supposed to be accountable to don’t scream “for the kids.”

Vote No on the GMUSD budget. Tell the GMUSD school board to fix it, then go to the meetings. Decisions are made by those who show up.

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Filed Under: CommentaryTelegraph Editorial

About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 40 years. Cynthia has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland, and has won numerous state awards for her reporting. As an editor, she has overseen her staffs to win many awards for indepth coverage. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Stuart Lindberg says:

    ” As a town, Andover pays 1.8 M to the State for the education of our 49 children, or ~37K/student. Chester pays ~4.4M for 376 children. Chester has six votes on the Board, we have 1. Given this screwed up disproportionality, the District should be reorganized to more equitable ends. And that does not address the emasculation of our town’s authority respecting education which has been gerrymandered and diluted to a district wide vote depriving us of a say as a town respecting the funding of our public schools.” GSP-Andover

  2. Tim Roper says:

    The way the GMUSD board and the district are being administered certainly doesn’t seem to jibe with what we, the voters, were told the benefits of the merger would bring us. Thank you for digging into and reporting on the process that has gotten us to this point; it helps to reenforce the impressions I was already getting about the governance of the new district.

    An ancient saying that I’ve found to be true time after time in my own life experience comes to mind now. “The fish rots from the head down.” This c/p from Cynthia’s Op/Ed appears to bear that concept out as related to the topic at hand.

    “After a $10,580 raise, which the TRSU executive committee gave Powden last year, she included a $7,010 raise for herself in the 2018-2019 budget, bringing her salary to $132,590. Powden has less than three years experience as a superintendent. When longtime Superintendent Bruce Williams left TRSU in June 2016, his salary was just $107,200. No TRSU board member with whom we have spoken knew where this most recent raise came from.”

    If this is correct, I see no reason to continue trusting Powden to represent the best interests of the children in the district, the teachers and other employees or the tax payers who must foot the bill for her salary. I will use my No vote on Tuesday to voice my dissatisfaction with the budget and with the leadership of our new “money saving, kid and education friendly” unified school district. I encourage others to do the same.

  3. Amy Hamblett says:

    The Agency of Education’s professional standards for administrators includes the domain of “Teaching and Learning”, which includes instructional leadership, referenced here as “coaching teachers”. As we move to proficiency-based education, having my principal available to help me understand and work towards that paradigm shift would be hugely helpful.

  4. Stuart Lindberg says:

    Thank you Cynthia Prairie and Chester Telegraph for all of the research in bringing to light what is happening with our education tax dollars.

  5. Chris Walker says:

    Keep digging this is insane.