TRSU proposes cutting GM educational priorities

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Three weeks after the Finance Committee of the Green Mountain Unified School District asked the Two Rivers Supervisory Union to come back with a budget that would include several of its education priorities while trying to keep the per pupil cost as low as possible, members received a budget proposing to eliminate all those priorities while increasing spending in other areas.

The budget includes “proposed cuts” of more than $500,000 with a spending total that is only $233,393 less than the $14.2 million budget that the committee saw on Dec. 9. The $13.9 million spending plan is 8 percent over the current school year’s budget.

The proposal was to be taken up by the committee on Monday, Dec. 30, but that meeting was canceled due to weather.  Instead, the GM Finance Committee meeting has been tentatively rescheduled for 6 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 6 at Green Mountain High School, 716 Rt. 103 South in Chester. Click here for the agenda and budgets for the Dec. 30th meeting.  TRSU will hold its budget meeting at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 2 at Cavendish Town Elementary School, 573 Main St. in Proctorsville. Click here for the agenda and budgets.

Part of the challenge in crafting the GM budget are the changes in the way health-care coverage is being handled and the uncertainty of the cost. A second problem is not knowing how many students from Ludlow and Mt. Holly will come to Green Mountain, bringing their school choice tuition with them.

To add to the difficulty, this latest version of the GM budget — which funds Cavendish Town and Chester-Andover elementaries and Green Mountain High — comes just two weeks before the customary mid-January date for school boards to approve a spending plan to meet a printing deadline for a vote on Town Meeting Day, Tuesday, March 3.

Deb Brown and Michael Studin have run the budget process as Chair and Vice Chair of the Finance Committee Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Since the creation of the district, the board has felt pushed to meet that deadline. In 2019, members streamlined their process and started working on the budget earlier than ever, yet still have a problematic budget just ahead of the deadline. The fact is, however, that there is nothing in state law that requires voters to approve a budget at a March Town Meeting. All that is required is that voters approve a spending plan either at an annual meeting or special meeting. If the budget is not approved by June 30, the state funding will be affected.

So as mid-January approaches, GM board members will have to chose between meeting that first deadline with a large increase in costs and fewer educational opportunities for students or continuing to work on the budget in hopes of containing costs and including some or all of their priorities.

Such a delay could impact the TRSU budget, which derives its funding from the budgets of the GM and Ludlow-Mt. Holly school districts.

The TRSU has two budgets – one for the central office and one for special education. Both are assessed back to the districts and represent large line items in those budgets. The TRSU budget has hefty increases this year as well and is up for discussion and possibly a board vote on Jan. 2. In the two years since the merger, the SU has voted its budget before the districts and both times GM asked the SU to reopen its budget and look for savings. Once it did and once it didn’t.

While GM tackles a budget lacking its educational priorities, the Ludlow-Mt. Holly school district has started the process more than $400,000 over the state’s excess spending cap of $18,756 per student.

GM priorities vs. TRSU priorities

Board and budget priorities after the Finance Committee voted on them in September

In September, at the urging of the administration, the GM board held a retreat to decide what educational direction the district should take. Members decided to concentrate on early education/literacy to help students who struggle with school to keep from falling behind.

They also decided that more resources should be put into the STEAM program for  science/technology/engineering/arts/math and that there should be second language instruction, such as Spanish or French, in the elementary schools. The second language program was one of the educational opportunities promised during the Act 46 process, but so far board efforts to implement it have been met with resistance from the administration.

Late in 2019, Two Rivers Superintendent Meg Powden put forward proposals to create SU-wide programs, including transportation and food services. These would rely on using GM employees to run the programs as TRSU staff. The costs would then be assessed back to the schools based on head count, with the GM district paying 75 percent and the Ludlow-Mt. Holly district paying 25 percent.

GM board chair Joe Fromberger, who also serves on the TRSU board, pushed back on those plans at a recent SU meeting. Fromberger, instead, proposed that GM provide the services to LMH by contract rather than creating more bureaucracy at the TRSU level. It became evident that the cost of the TRSU transportation plan put GM at a disadvantage when TRSU Business Manager Cheryl Hammond explained to the LMH board that GM had to cut its budget and didn’t want to “add a bunch of money so that we can share.”

Another proposal was to make the GM STEAM coordinator, which is under the GM budget, into a  full-time position under the Supervisory Union, with 60 percent of her time going to the GM schools rather than all of it. That was also rejected by the GM board in favor of it being a full-time job in the district.

Powden has also asked for a health educator and an early literacy coordinator at the SU level. GM board members turned down the literacy coordinator position preferring to put resources into teaching rather than administration. The board also put the health educator on hold.

What about those tuition funds?

In June 2020, the Black River High School will close and students from Ludlow and Mt. Holly will chose a new middle/high school. The tuition they bring to their new school has the potential to add educational opportunities promised during Act 46.

This analysis of the responses to the question of where LMH students would prefer to go to high school next year will be one tool in estimating the GMUSD budget.

But the budget proposal that the GM finance committee received from the TRSU on Friday, Dec. 27 shows 45 out of a possible 134 LMH students picking GM.

The 45-student estimate is based on 80 responses to a questionnaire sent to the families of the 134 LMH students who will be in grades 7-12 in the fall of 2020. That’s a little over 56 percent of those responding choosing Green Mountain. But that leaves 54 students unaccounted for. Students don’t have to make a real choice until August 2020, but the school system has to come up with a reasonable estimate to plan for the year. If a similar percentage of the remaining students were to opt for Green Mountain, the added tuition would be more than $500,000.

Among the 80 responses, 23 LMH students have selected the Black River Independent School, which has been in the works for more than two years. If that school is not able to get up and running by July 1, 2020 – just six months from now – the number of students coming to GM could also rise as 14 of those students picked GM as a second choice. That’s another $238,000.

Accurately estimating the number of students choosing the district’s high school is a key component in making up the budget and the board has yet to see the analysis of the  questionnaire response, which was presented to the LMH board back on Dec. 11.

By basing the budget on an incomplete tuition income projection of $765,000, the SU is saying there is not enough money for the board’s education initiatives. Passing a budget based on low tuition numbers would increase taxes, then likely yield a large surplus when the final number of students is in.

Earlier this year, the board learned that in the 2018/19 school year, the Green Mountain district either overspent existing budget lines or spent on things not budgeted to the tune of $1.3 million. It avoided showing that deficit by under-spending $1.1 million in areas of the budget that had been approved by voters. Given the board’s reaction to that spending, it’s expected that the board would want to avoid the creation of an unearmarked surplus.

If the board decides that it will not finish the budget for the March vote, it will have to come up with a strategy for bringing in a figure that voters can live with while adding enough educational opportunities to attract LMH students into the future. What remains to be seen is whether this would be accomplished by sending the budget back to the SU for revision or taking a more direct hand in spending decisions.

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