EDITORIAL: Involvement is the next step in fixing GMUSD budget

By Cynthia Prairie
©2018 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The voters of the towns of Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish and Chester have spoken, voting down the new Green Mountain Unified School District’s first ever budget, amounting to $12.5 million.

The outcome was far from inevitable. While there were strong objections to the proposal, many teachers and parents as well as friends and families of teachers were concerned that sending it back to the school board would mean that the board would take a slash-and-burn approach to it. So, of course, they voted for the budget.

But the majority of voters believed that the budgeting process and the budget itself were flawed and needed to be — if not overhauled — at least rethought and re-prioritized.

The loudest takeaway: It’s not about the money.

Voters want changes made and it will take three groups to make them.

WE, THE PUBLIC. Taxpayers, parents, teachers, students and concerned citizens must make our voices heard to the GMUSD Board of Directors. And the first shot you have in the new process will be at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 13, currently scheduled for Cavendish Town Elementary School**. Be there. Be prepared to listen closely and ask questions politely.

And remember that our four “ABC” towns of Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish and Chester are joined as one in this Act 46 experiment and we must ensure that every school, every town and every child receives the best education we can afford. Influence on the School Board will only be weakened if we resort  to town-against-town and school-against-school. We are all in this together, folks, and we want our three schools — Cavendish Town Elementary and Chester-Andover Elementary and Green Mountain High — to shine. Put another way, it takes four villages to raise our children.

THE SCHOOL BOARD: Some people – especially educators – believe that the GMUSD board will read the budget defeat as a signal from voters to slash teachers and programs. We have confidence that members understand that this “no” vote was more about priorities than dollars, and slashing is not what’s needed.

The board has got a tough job to do. It must listen closely to the suggestions of the people it represents and distill those into a vision of the school system that it can direct the Two Rivers Supervisory Union to work toward. To date, Superintendent Meg Powden has presented her vision of more administration and scraps for educational opportunities. In effect, the tail has been wagging the dog and voters have said it’s time for the school board to wag back.

The board must also realize this isn’t a one-night process. The budget needs to be looked at closely and explained clearly by the SU. That clarity will likely not come easily or quickly. But the tough questions need to be asked and clear answers need to be demanded. That will take more than one, two-hour meeting a month. It will take several meetings that focus in-depth on specific areas rather than a “review” of line items.

And let the public in on the discussion. Have a stack of budgets to hand out on Tuesday. Post new versions online with deletions redlined and additions in bold before subsequent meetings and encourage people to look it over. Also, move public comment up in the agenda instead of next to last.

THE SUPERVISORY UNION: Fix the biggest complaint this SU has faced: Transparency, starting with the budget. Format the budget in a more accessible and less opaque way. Budgets presented so far show what was proposed in the past, but not what ended up being spent, so savings and overruns are not seen. These “actual costs” are crucial to analyzing an organization’s spending, which is the first step in correcting problems and finding savings. Also, footnote items that are not readily understood including acronyms. We are not all steeped in education jargon.

And the SU must be prepared to answer questions on the details that come from both the School Board and the citizens.

On the night that the recently defeated budget was approved by the board under the pressure of the Town Meeting schedule, Superintendent Powden suggested a retreat in June to sort out the new district’s goals and priorities ahead of next year’s budget. Now, that the voters have spoken, there’s time to do that work in several focused sessions that more people can attend and get the new district off to a better start.

**There is some confusion over whether the meeting will occur at Cavendish Elementary or at Green Mountain Union High’s Library Learning Commons. The minutes of the Feb. 13 meeting say CTES. But when the agenda came out, the meeting was scheduled for GMUHS. We’ll let you know when we find out.

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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. Tim Roper says:

    Well stated, Cynthia.

    I think for many, the budget defeat is a statement of lack of trust in the process. When half of the $12.5 million GMUHS budget is earmarked to be passed through for the opaque TRSU to spend, that further reinforces the prudence of the voters asking for more transparency. Half of the money being raised is not even subject to our scrutiny with regard to plans for spending, because as I understand it, the TRSU board votes alone to approve that. That seems like a flawed system that needs to be rethought.

    Unfortunately my work schedule precludes attendance at the meetings of either of these two bodies. I hope others who are available will attend regularly and will work diligently to help the boards find ways to gain our trust. We, the taxpayers, need to make our voices heard and I believe we should insist upon having a process that includes a public vote on the TRSU budget.

  2. Marilyn Mahusky says:

    The next meeting of the GMUSD Board of Directors is Tuesday, 2/13 at 6:00 p.m. The agenda sent to board members was incorrect. The location is Cavendish Elementary School.

    The Board continues to welcome and invites public comment as we move forward with crafting a new budget that meets the needs of our students, provides educational opportunities anticipated by consolidation under Act 46 and remains fiscally responsible.

    Please come!

    Marilyn Mahusky is the chair of the Green Mountain Unified School District.