Editorial: Next step in openness: Process, clarity in school budgeting

By Cynthia Prairie
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

With the satisfactory resolution of the Open Meeting Law violation and other issues, the Green Mountain Unified District Board of Directors seems to be getting a firm grip on its responsibilities, stepping away from the rubber-stamp function that seems expected by the Two Rivers Supervisory Union. But the real challenge will come when it faces its largest responsibility – the annual budget.

The 2020/21 GMUSD budget will be due at the printer in just about seven months. But if things go as usual, the board, which is elected to approve the budget for its three schools, won’t see it for another four months, will be confused by its unnecessary complexity, kept in the dark by too few and too short meetings and rushed to pass a spending plan in time to go to voters, who will be even more confused.

It’s been a sloppy “process,” if what happens can be called a “process.”

Let’s look at what happened in 2018: The GM finance committee, which reviews the budget, began meeting in November.

  • On Nov. 15, the administration presented the committee with the initial budget, including its wish list and a footnote that says “I’m sure there is more that we will take (sic) about on Thursday!! REMEMBER — THIS IS JUST A FIRST DRAFT”  The committee met for one hour.
  • Two weeks later, it again met for one hour.
  • Then on Dec. 5, it met for two hours.
  • On Dec. 13, it met for one hour.
  • Its Dec. 20 meeting was postponed but on that evening, the full GMUSD board got its first look at the draft budget.
  • Then two weeks later — on Jan. 7  — the committee met on the budget for one hour.
  • On Jan. 15, the committee met for two hours, and decided to punt the decision by presenting the full board with four budget scenarios.
  • On Jan. 17, the GMUSD board was asked to approve one of the four.

Consider this: It’s a $13 million budget, three times that of the Chester town general fund budget.  But only a bit more than eight hours was spent on understanding and revising it, an almost impossible task since the administration staff is pretty dogged about introducing revisions and amendments, including budget figures, proposed staff, corrections, changes in budget formatting and capital requests (because there is no separate capital budget).

And from the very beginning, key information was missing. It’s pretty standard for budgets to include at least three items:

  • what was approved in the previous budget;
  • what is requested for the coming budget year; and
  • what was actually spent in the previous year.

That last item — how much was actually spent — has been missing from school budget discussions.

None of this is unusual with the Two Rivers Supervisory Union boards (TRSU, GMUSD and Ludlow-Mt. Holly) that have been complaisant to a superintendency that has been pushing its agenda with little input from the public.

But now, the elected members of the Green Mountain board seem to have sensed the urgency to gain control over a superintendency that has been spinning out of control.  It began with their recognition of the superintendent’s misdirection over remedying bad advice that lead to numerous violations over the Open Meeting Law. And hopefully it will end in improved communication, understanding and outcomes for our students at under GMUSD control: Green Mountain High and Cavendish Town and Chester-Andover elementaries.

The Green Mountain board seems to be taking a different path than the other boards. It is one that we encourage and applaud.

We hope the board’s budget performance will rate a “proficient with distinction.”

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Filed Under: CommentaryTelegraph Editorial

About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 30 years. She 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. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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