GMUSD board learns of $189,000 deficit, will start budget process months early

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Budgeting was front and center on Thursday night as the board of the Green Mountain Unified School District learned that it would be starting the process with a deficit of more than $189,000.

In the end, the board also decided to change the way it compiles its spending plan.

Two Rivers Supervisory Union Business Manager Cheryl Hammond started the discussion of the finances of the year just finished by announcing that the shortfall predicted in the district’s 2018/2019 spending that had been distributed to the board in the past week had grown by $51,000.

TRSU Business Manager Cheryl Hammond explains the factors that led to the $189,000 shortfall. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Included in that $51,000 are education tax credits back to the towns of Chester and Baltimore that were not included in the information the board had received in its meeting packet and a receivable sum that had been entered into the books twice, one of which had to be backed out of the total.

Hammond told the board that the net assessments charged to the GM district by the SU — for services such as transportation and special education — were also higher than budgeted by more than $220,000. She noted that the unanticipated addition of more special needs students and the implementation of an autism program that was not budgeted were responsible for the lion’s share of the overage. In July 2018, the TRSU board approved both items believing that their cost would be the same or less than what was being spent to send special needs children to programs outside the district.

Board member Marilyn Mahusky asked how the costs of keeping students in the district rather than sending them to special programs out of district is more expensive.  Hammond acknowledged that there were savings in transportation but there were also at least two unanticipated students coming into the special education program.

Board member Doug McBride asked if,  with the program infrastructure in place, there isn’t a marginal cost to each child that enters the program.

Board members Doug McBride and Marilyn Mahusky ask for clarification on the special education component of the deficit.

Hammond said that Student Services Director Mary Barton could better explain the over-spending. Neither Barton nor TRSU Superintendent Meg Powden was in attendance and Mahusky asked that Barton be put on a future agenda.

McBride pointed to the complexity of the budget document and asked that, in addition to that detail, the business office provide charts or graphs that give data a structure that makes it more useful. Board member Kate Lamphere noted that if the SU has the elements of data already, it should not be too much of a burden to “dump the data into the graphic.”

McBride also said that there are a lot of budget lines overspent and a lot of them under-spent. He then asked Hammond to total each to see how much of what was budgeted is being used to balance what was not budgeted.

The Telegraph asked if it was fair to conclude that if the handful of the budget items that were under-spent had, instead, been fully spent,then the overage would be more than $425,000. In effect, the SU is relying on not providing the services that the board budgeted for to make up for spending in other areas.  As examples, those under-spent items include work on STEAM (under by $14,220) and elementary world language instruction programs ($8,600), professional development ($18,000)and health insurance ($245,000).

“Fair but not realistic,” said Hammond noting that said that the under-spending in those areas was not intentional. But Hammond agreed that if those areas had spent what was fully budgeted “we’d be in a world of hurt.”

GM board to begin budget process in September

Board member Michael Studin said this was the kind of information that the board needed as it entered into the budgeting season.

Board chair Joe Fromberger said the budget process would start on Oct. 31, but several members were in favor of beginning earlier. (The process has started as late as the end of November while the budget document has to go to the printers by mid-January in time for the March Town Meeting vote.)

Chairman Joe Fromberger polls the board on a meeting format for budgeting

Calling it “a waste of time,” CAES Principal Katherine Fogg asked that the format be changed, noting that last year the finance committee would meet with staff and work through some items and then at its next meeting the board would revisit the entire conversation. Fromberger suggested that the entire board become the finance committee and the consensus was that they should meet separately from the regular board meeting to have enough time to work. While McBride wanted to start the process in August, it was decided that the meeting should begin in September.

The board also discussed a “retreat” to work on its priorities. The session had been scheduled for Wednesday Sept. 25 and Fromberger announced that in addition to the board discussion, Superintendent Powden would be unveiling her 3-to 5-year plan for the supervisiory union. Mahusky thought it would be better to do the retreat first but the question was whether the facilitator would be available.

In the end, the board decided that if the facilitator could make it, the retreat would happen on Sept. 10, but if not, that date would be the first budget meeting.

Whose buses are those, anyway?

During the “board comment” section of the meeting, Studin asked if anyone knew why the eight, newly purchased school buses had “Two Rivers Supervisory Union” painted on them rather than Green Mountain Unified School District, which purchased the fleet.

“Because it needs to be in the SU since the SU is responsible for transportation,” said Hammond.

“But we’re the ones paying for it, right?” asked Studin, referring to the GM district’s financing of nearly $700,000 to purchase the fleet.

“It’s a supervisory union program and, after next year, Ludlow-Mount Holly will become part of that as well because Ludlow will need busing,” said Hammond.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Studin.

A newly delivered GMUSD bus in its original livery on July 30

“You can have a conversation with Meg about it,” said Hammond.

While the livery for the fleet indeed says “Two Rivers Supervisory Union,” it was not always the case. After a GMUSD meeting on July 30, The Telegraph shot some photos of the new buses showing that the original livery said “Green Mountain Union High School.”

GMUSD’s Bus 1 displaying the TRSU livery on Aug. 19.

On Tuesday, Superintendent Meg Powden told The Telegraph that the livery was changed to reflect the SU’s roll in providing transportation. She said that Act 153 of 2010 requires the supervisory union to provide transportation services. Powden also said that the Ludlow municipal bus system will no longer provide buses after Black River High School closes next June and TRSU will have to provide Pre-K through 12 transportation for that district.

And she said that the board approved transporting Ludlow-Mt. Holly students within that district last summer. However, the only minutes that refer to the topic — from August 2018 — indicate that while the GMUSD board discussed providing transportation to Green Mountain High for students from the Ludlow-Mt. Holly district, it did not take any action.

On Jan. 17 of this year, the GM board did vote to make transportation available to LMH students going to Green Mountain but did not take up the question of providing the service inside the Ludlow-Mt. Holly District.

As to the question of the Green Mountain district paying for the buses to provide transportation for another district, Powden said that would be worked out in a couple of ways. She added that welcoming LMH students to GM would generate revenue for the district and that Ludlow Mount Holly would need to contribute on a per capita basis.

Powden also said she did not know the cost of repainting the bus livery.

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  1. Arlene Mutschler says:

    This is getting scary, folks! In 10 yrs my RE taxes have doubled! And as someone without children, I am paying for NOTHING? And I look at the items you are adding to the curriculum? Really? Why not add things like “LIFE” classes. How to apply for a job/college, make a resume, balance a check book? That is more necessary than ‘enrichment”! And the addition of 2 special needs children is enough to send the budget into the red? I think that is wrong. If there are programs outside the district, I think this option should be considered. Those core school are probably state funded? I am sure there are many things in that budget that are just not needed? If some areas have excesses, then their budget amounts should be reduced to reflect that. I know how it works? They make sure they ‘use’ it or lose it. I think every department should be cut 10%? I know many educators pay for things personally and I commend that. But that is their choice. Parents have to be made more aware and responsible.