TRSU board mulls budget increases, LMH may lose transportation

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

While school officials asserted that an overall budget increase of 9.54 percent at the Two Rivers Supervisory Union level was necessary and that new special education programs are saving money, board members asked for details to show their school boards and the communities they represent. The board also asked for 5 percent in cuts.

TRSU Business Manager Cheryl Hammond explains the cuts already in the union’s budget

The budget presented at the Jan. 2 meeting already had some cuts – a few of them quite substantial – including the chopping of a proposed SU wide early literacy coordinator position that Superintendent Meg Powden said was her No. 1 priority. The SU budget also zeros out transportation for students in Ludlow and Mt. Holly ahead of a Jan. 8 meeting in which the Ludlow-Mt. Holly Unified Union School District  board will consider eliminating busing to help get its budget under control. At a recent LMH meeting, the board heard that the district was about $400,000 over the excess spending threshold of $18,756 per student.

“They’re losing a high school and now we’re cutting transportation,” said TRSU board member Mary Alberty, who also sits on the Ludlow-Mt. Holly school board. She said she is not comfortable with the budget. Alberty also said she was concerned that truancy would become a problem – especially in Ludlow – if there was no transportation.

Former Mt. Holly School board member Dave Venter questions expenditures. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Saying he was not doing so in a hostile way, former Mt. Holly School and TRSU board member David Venter asked numerous questions about specific lines in the budget including the existing “intensive needs” program and a proposed “social and emotional learning” program. Together these cost roughly $500,000 and are intended to keep special needs students in the area rather then sending them to programs in other communities.

Venter and several others noted that while they may be saving money, there’s nothing that shows what is being saved. Mary Barton, director of Student Services (special education), said that three students are in the intensive needs program, which serves students with autism, with one more coming.  Barton estimated that sending these children to out-of-district programs could cost as much as $200,000 per year per student. The local program can handle five to seven students, according to Barton and is budgeted for $272,324.

Superintendent Meg Powden explains that the new Social and Emotional Learning program will bring back students who have been placed in programs outside the district

Likewise, the social and emotional learning program will replace out-of-district placements for three or four students, which could total $400,000. The in-house program is budgeted at $225,286.

Board members suggested that the administration come up with a document showing how these steps are saving money.  Chester-Andover Elementary Principal Katherine Fogg said that her school was a high spending school on special education until they adopted Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support, which she said has changed the culture of the school and could be substituted for the social and emotional learning program.

Powden said the program was to bring children back from out-of-district placements and Fogg said that perhaps with PBIS those children could be brought back to their original schools.

Cavendish Principal Deb Beaupre told the meeting that when she started teaching she had 27 children in her class but that most were not overwhelmingly impacted by the economy, the opioid crisis or trauma.

“School is fluid,” said Beaupre. “We don’t have choices over who comes in and what they need. We work really hard to make sure we meet the needs of the students who come into the building in as many ways as we can. School is not the same as it was in my day or in your day. It’s different.”

“To think about it in a business way when we are talking about people is inappropriate,” continued Beaupre, referring to special education. “Kids have whatever they have. We go through a meeting that involves science and research and time to determine whether someone really needs this. It’s a level we have to meet and we have standards.”

Board member Joe Fromberger says that he has requests from GM board members not to approve the TRSU budget until they have a chance to look at it.

“When you have are fixed costs with a 12 to 15 percent increase and you make a statement that you won’t consider increases over 4 percent, what you’re telling us is that we need to cut 10 percent from outside those fixed costs,” said GM Principal Lauren Fierman.”And those are people and programs that I can promise you will leave your schools in places you don’t want them to be.”

Green Mountain Unified School District board chair Joe Fromberger questioned how to solve the split between the budget and what the man or woman on the street says is adequate education.

“This is where we have to convince somebody to tax themselves because they think the future of society is worth it,” said Fromberger.

Fierman said that sometimes larger increases are needed and that if the board goes to the voters and says that this is what’s necessary, the voters will believe them.

Fromberger told the board that he had received emails from members of the GM board asking that the TRSU budget not be approved until they can review it.

Powden asked if there was a consensus to cut 5 percent, which would mean taking $286,269 from the SU budget. TRSU board chair Paul Orzechowski said he was fine with the budget as it is. But others discussed the question of selling the increase to voters. The next meeting was scheduled for 6 p.m. on Monday Jan. 13 at Cavendish Town Elementary.

Cavendish ski program in fingerprinting limbo

During the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting Jared Harper told the board that the policy regarding criminal background checks of volunteers who would be alone with children would likely to cancel the first and possibly second Cavendish ski day.

Cavendish ski program coordinator Jared Harper asks for a two week waiver from the policy of fingerprinting volunteers

The policy requires time-consuming criminal records checks that can involve fingerprinting,  according to Harper, who has run the ski program for seven years. He added that he only learned of the new policy four hours before that night’s meeting. Harper said there was little chance that enough volunteers could be fingerprinted and checked before the first week of the ski program.

Orzechowski told Harper that Powden has the discretion to waive the checks for a time until they could be done but the superintendent said she would have to check with VSBIT, the school system’s insurance carrier before taking that step.

On Tuesday evening, Harper told The Telegraph that the program had been able to hold the ski day by having some volunteers who have fingerprint criminal checks on hand to shadow those who had a lower level of criminal check, but not one that involves fingerprinting. Harper said the kids had a good day on the slopes.

Venter says he’ll run for Mt. Holly seat

Before the meeting got under way, a board member asked Venter if he was running for the LMH board. “If nobody else runs, I will,” said Venter.

“I’m not,” replied Alberty, who said that her work was making participation on the school board difficult.

“I guess I’ll have to stop at the town office and pick up a petition,” said Venter.

“I’ll sign it,” said Alberty.

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