2 approaches: Green Mountain, Ludlow-Mt. Holly school boards tackle spending LMH over the 'excess spending' threshold

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The two districts that make up the Two Rivers Supervisory Union are wrestling with controlling the spending in their FY 2021 budgets this year as one looks to increase its educational offerings and accommodate more students, while the other tries to manage the Act 46 downsizing that was supposed to result in savings but has not. And both are working with an SU that has been moving to expand its staff and its financial control over several areas.

Green Mountain Unified School District is made up of Cavendish Town and Chester-Andover elementaries and Green Mountain High; Ludlow-Mt. Holly Unified Union School District consists of Mt. Holly and Ludlow elementaries and Black River High, which is closing next spring. The districts are under the administration of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union, which consists of the superintendent., administration and office support staff as well as special education staff and others.

Studin answers Powden criticism of GM board

The tug of war that has been this year’s Green Mountain Unified School District budget process intensified on Thursday evening Dec. 12, as board members reacted to remarks that Superintendent Meg Powden made during the Two Rivers Supervisory Union board meeting a week earlier Dec. 5.

Board member Michael Studin responds to Powden’s remarks on collaboration Photos by Shawn Cunningham unless otherwise noted

At that meeting – referring to a Nov. 25 GM finance meeting in which the committee opted not to fund several administration priorities – Powden said it was clear to her that the spirit of collaboration she said had been present in the past is no longer there.

At the Dec. 12, GM meeting, board member Michael Studin of Chester responded. Reading from a prepared statement, Studin said that while the administration had its priorities, the board had to look at larger issues including the impact its decisions have on “a family’s ability to stay in our community or move into our community.”

Studin noted that the supervisory union has proposed five positions at a cost of $400,000 and that none of these are teachers — “boots on the ground positions”  — but “SU controlled director/coordinator” positions.

“I find it disingenuous for the Superintendent to lecture the board because she does not feel that it is supporting her initiatives. The administration’s role is to act on the priorities of this board not the other way around,” Studin said. “I would like to see the Superintendent spend her time better managing her more than adequate resources to address the needs of the district.”

Studin called for creativity on the part of the SU to use its resources “effectively and efficiently” because “taxpayers of our small towns cannot afford the path we are on and it is time the administration realizes this and changes the way they do business.”

Board member Kate Lamphere saying she found it ‘deeply concerning’ that Powden did not come to the GM board with her thought first

Noting that “trust” between the board and the SU had been identified as an issue to be worked on earlier this year, member Kate Lamphere of Cavendish agreed, saying that she found it “deeply concerning” that Powden’s conversation didn’t take place with the GM board as it “leaned in on oversight.”

Powden later told the board that she reports to the TRSU board and she is committed to bringing her thoughts and issues to that board first. She said the TRSU board asked her for her priorities and she identified SU-wide positions in food service, transportation, STEAM coordination, health education and early literacy coordination. She then said the  early literacy coordinator post is her top priority. The GM finance committee had rejected it, calling it an administrative rather than a teaching position.

Powden told the board that none of the five proposed positions was administrative but were intended to support reading teachers, provide STEAM activities and feed and transport “all of our children.” She said she was willing to talk about collaboration and have a facilitated conversation between the board and administration.

Superintendent Meg Powden saying she reports to the TRSU board and speaks with them first on issues

“You said this position (early literacy coordinator) would not be administrative. How do you define administrative?” asked Lamphere.

“I would say somebody with an administrator’s endorsement (on a state education license) like a principal, curriculum director, director of student services or a superintendent,” Powden replied.

“Will this person be teaching (students)?” asked Lamphere.

“Yes, coaching and perhaps teaching side by side with some of our teachers,” said Powden, citing teacher turnover in early grades leading to the need to bring new teachers up to speed. The term coaching refers to educational services for the teacher, and thus indirectly to the student.

At a retreat in early September, the GM board had worked out its own priorities. These included:

  • support of early education;
  • a full-time STEAM coordinator for the elementary schools. (A part time STEAM teacher  was requested by the high school and the finance committee voted to make that full-time. The SU had pushed for sharing the STEAM position both districts but the GM board decided to stick to its original idea.)
  • a teacher of a second language for the GMUSD elementary schools.

In light of large increases in the cost of providing health insurance for employees, Powden said something will have to give and pointed to delaying the second language program.

“We will try to do our best to protect those priorities,” Powden told the board. “It would be wonderful to have world languages in our elementary schools,  but this might not be the right timing when trying to build up our STEAM program. Once STEAM is established, I would recommend we look at world languages.”

Ludlow Mt. Holly at the ‘threshold’

On the other side of the SU, the Ludlow-Mt. Holly Unified Union School District board learned – at its Dec. 11 meeting – that it needs to cut more than $400,000 to stay under the “excess spending threshold” of $18,756 per student. The penalty for excess spending in the state’s education funding formula is to double-tax every dollar over the threshold in the education property tax.

TRSU Business Manager Cheryl Hammond explains the excess spending situation to the LMHUUSD board. Courtesy Okemo Valley TV

Two of the issues that are pushing expenses higher are food service and transportation because the district has been able to do these functions relatively cheaply in the past. The district has been contracting with a corporate food service provider that is pulling out of the district because the number of students is dropping with the closing of Black River High School and because the company has been losing money.

The contract with Cafe Services allows the company to bill the school for no more than a fixed amount over the income and expenses of the program. In the past, the district has been limited to paying $6,000 for the overage, but that has risen to $20,000 in recent contracts and would be even more if the company were to return.

The TRSU proposal would have seen GM Food Service Director Michael Kennedy become the TRSU director and GM would have had to hire another person to do his “non-director” duties. The suggestion was made at the GM board that LMH contract with GM for food service, which would be prepared at the GM kitchens then transported to the LMH schools. With one board member saying that “cold, gray food is just gross,” that plan was set aside, and Ludlow-Mt. Holly decided to go it on its own. Consequently, LMH will need to find a part-time certified food service supervisor for 10 hours per week.

Powden suggested finding someone retired with the necessary certifications and one LMH board member suggested asking Kennedy to moonlight at LMH. In the end, the board is looking at a kitchen renovation at Ludlow Elementary with food being shipped to Mt. Holly. TRSU Business Manager Cheryl Hammond said the kitchen renovation is budgeted for $80,000, with half of that going toward appliances and the remainder toward plumbing, electric and other costs.

Another TRSU initiative  — a TRSU wide transportation director to run the busing program for all five schools — went much the same way. Under the TRSU plan, LMH would buy at least two buses — possibly the older, used buses from Ludlow Municipal Transit — in addition to the current Mt. Holly bus. The transportation director would schedule the drivers, work on the routes and maintain the fleet, which would consist of eight new and one used GM buses and several used LMH buses of varying vintages.

With the SU claiming that it had to provide transportation “by law” and GM saying that the SU only had to “arrange for transportation,” GM offered to contract with LMH to provide the service. In the end, the SU bus proposal was dropped as it was explained at the meeting.

They are looking to cut a lot out of their budget, so for them to add a bunch of money so that we can share, I don’t see it happening.

Cheryl Hammond, TRSU business manager, describing
GMUSD’s reluctance to participate in shared transportation.

“Being perfectly honest and looking at these numbers,” said Hammond, “I see Green Mountain wanting to stay with their own system because it’s going to be the most cost savings for them. They are looking to cut a lot out of their budget, so for them to add a bunch of money so that we can share, I don’t see it happening.”

Powden then explained that the need for an early literacy coordinator was due to the turnover in teachers at the early grades. According to an August 2019 spreadsheet produced by the SU, last year, of TRSU’s 296 employees, 32 (or 10.8 percent) retired, resigned or were terminated. Of those, five were in grades K-3.

Powden said it is a critical position.

LMH board chair Paul Orzechowski says he will fight back because it seems ‘Green Mountain is running the show.’ <small> Courtesy Okemo Valley TV

Referring to the GM board, LMH and TRSU board chair Paul Orzechowski said, “They’ve said no on everything. I’m willing to push back on this. We gave in on transportation, we gave in on food service. We really need this and it seems like Joe (Fromberger, the GM board chair) wants this.” Orzechowski was referring to the idea that a vote by a majority of the six member TRSU board could create a position that a district board that opposed it would have to pay for through an assessment from TRSU.

“I’m going back and fight for it because it seems like Green Mountain is running the show,” said Orzechowski. “It’s not fair, we’re all supposed to be working together here.”

“I’m a teacher, reading is what I do,” said board member Kelly Tarbell, “I don’t know how we’re going to pass a budget that sounds outrageous.”

“I’d like to just propose a budget and let them (the voters) shoot it down,” said Orzechowski. “That’s just my opinion, that’s how I like to work.”

The Telegraph asked Joe Fromberger if he would vote in favor of the literacy coordinator position.

“It’s problematic for me,” said Fromberger, “I’m very conscious that we need to do something for early education. After all, if they don’t know how to read, they can’t learn. But it would be difficult for me to vote for another adminstration position.

Fromberger said he would advocate for something for early education at the next GM finance committee (on Dec. 30) and see what happens.

The next LMH meeting is scheduled for Jan. 8, 2020.

Powden offers to recruit board candidates

Later, Powden took note that some of the LMH members’ terms will be expiring in March.

‘This is a board we appreciate’ Powden tells the LMH board

“This is a board we appreciate and we would love to have the continuity,” said Powden. “If you are not (going to run for re-election) if you could let me know – or one of the principals know so we could help recruit somebody for the seat.”

She also noted that at a recent legislative breakfast there was a discussion of Act 166 of 2014, which deals with universal pre-kindergarten. Noting that she serves on a statewide pre-k council, Powden said she was “concerned our students aren’t receiving equitable high quality programming across the board” in pre-k. Last month, the GM board turned down the idea of buying the TD Bank building in Chester for a new public pre-k with an initial start-up cost of $500,000.

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