Two Rivers school districts, admin budgets OK’d In flurry of meetings, boards send proposals for March vote

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Last week, in a flurry of meetings, the boards of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union and its two school districts adopted difficult budgets with large increases and some important details still unresolved.

Now their task is to convince the voters of Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish, Chester, Ludlow and Mt. Holly that the increases reflect the needs of the schools and to approve them at Town Meeting in March.

TRSU Business Manager Cheryl Hammond explains how health care costs will rise dramatically in FY21 at a meeting in December. Telegraph file photo

Large increases in fixed costs that local boards do not control — such as employee health care (up 12.9 percent plus an arbitrator’s decision that schools must pay the first $4,200 of employees’ out-of-pocket medical costs), special education, the process of closing Black River High School and uncertainty about how many students (and their tuition) would come to Green Mountain — have been challenging for the boards.

For the Ludlow-Mt. Holly Unified Union School District, the budgeting season has been about avoiding the excess spending threshold of $18,756 per student while finding a way to replace the transportation provided for many years by the Town of Ludlow. The district will also be taking on providing food service for its two elementary schools in August. Exceeding the threshold would result in additional education tax being levied by the state.

The Green Mountain Unified School District has been wrestling with the added costs of providing more educational opportunities to its students and making the middle and high schools more attractive to tuition students. The board also set early learning as a priority to help keep students from falling behind, then requiring special education services. With Act 173, those services will no longer be reimbursed according to a formula, but rather with a block grant based on the number of students in the schools. This is intended to make cost control a greater priority.

Superintendent Meg Powden has characterized a $107,000 salary as part-time because she believes the board will not find a replacement for her at that pay rate. Telegraph file photo

Made up of three representatives from the two districts, the TRSU board, which oversees the central administration office, asked for reductions in the SU budget, which was showing an increase of 9.54 percent when first presented. On Jan. 13, the same evening when Superintendent Meg Powden announced her resignation, TRSU business manager Cheryl Hammond presented a spending plan  that included knocking 20 percent off of Powden’s $134,195 salary, taking the base pay to $107,356 for a new superintendent. But Hammond characterized as making the superintendent’s job .8 or  part-time. There were also other cuts including closing the Roost annex building at Fletcher Farm to save on rent and utilities, reducing other salaries and even eliminating a data specialist.

With their own budgets uncertain, the GM district’s representatives on the TRSU board voted not to adopt the SU budget until their board could look at it. But, ironically, that district’s finance committee – which has rejected several new positions, new programs and even the purchase of the TD Bank building in Chester as a pre-school — balked at keeping the salary cuts to the positions of superintendent, executive assistant and director of technology on the grounds that they should not be part-time.

At its Jan. 14 meeting, the GM Finance Committee heard from Chester-Andover Principal Katherine Fogg that her staff was busy working on early literacy and could not take on the early second language component that has been a priority since it was identified as a goal in the Act 46 merger process. The committee decided to drop the $71,500 project in the FY21 budget, but committee member Doug McBride vowed he would be back for that program next year.

Ludlow-Mt. Holly squeaks by threshold

The following evening, Jan. 15, the LMH board heard that a deal had been struck for the Town of Ludlow to continue operating a bus for the school system if the school would pay for the driver.

The Ludlow-Mt. Holly district is made up of Ludlow and Mt. Holly elementary schools and, through the spring, Black River High, which is set to close.

LMH board member Dan Buckley discusses the impact of transportation on the budget at a January 13 TRSU meeting. Telegraph file photo

Board member Dan Buckley noted that the agreement with the Town of Ludlow would give the board time to work on a transportation system for next year. The LMH board also cut $80,000 that was earmarked for kitchen renovations for food service. For next year at least, food will be prepared in the Ludlow community center and served to Ludlow students there, while being transported to Mt. Holly students.

In the end, the LMH board voted unanimously to send a 2020-2021 budget of $7,288,496 to the voters. That represents a per pupil cost of $18,755.72 or 28 cents below the excess spending threshold that would have triggered additional taxation by the state.

At a brief meeting held just before the GM board meeting on Jan. 16, Hammond told the TRSU board that she had added back the cuts and bumped up the central office contingency line $4,000 in case the board pays the next superintendent more. Powden told the board that they would have trouble finding a superintendent for less and the board approved the $6,789,888 budget, is a 7.58 percent increase over last year.

GM wrestles with student estimates

One thing that has made budgeting difficult for the GM district is the lack of a solid number of students coming from Black River High School, which is slated to close in the spring.

The Green Mountain district consists of Cavendish Town and Chester-Andover elementary schools and Green Mountain High.

Business manager Cheryl Hammond outlines the number of Black River students expected to attend various high schools at a meeting in Nov. of 2019. <small> Telegraph file photo

Numbers brought to the board have been incomplete and at times confusing. The first budget delivered by the SU showed only 45 students out of a possible 134 coming to GM. That necessitated cutting all of the priorities the board decided to pursue back in September. The board pushed back on that number raising the estimate to 67 and restoring most of the cuts. At the board’s Jan. 16 meeting, Hammond and Powden told the board they did not think they could reach that number and cut it back to 59. Each tuition student represents $17,000 in revenue.

McBride made a plea to restore the board’s goal of early second language instruction to the budget and board member Michael Studin agreed, saying that studies have shown that such a program can help with the literacy goals and noting that there will never be a “good time” to begin.

‘I’m very interested in how to integrate (second language,) but we haven’t had that conversation. I’ve seen it work successfully so I have no problem with it.’

Deb Beaupre
Cavendish Town Elementary

Board member Lois Perlah cautioned that the board should listen to the principals. “They are the people running the school and they know what their staff can handle,” said Perlah.

Cavendish Town Elementary Principal Deb Beaupre said, “I’m very interested in how to integrate (second language,) but we haven’t had that conversation. I’ve seen it work successfully so I have no problem with it.”

Fogg said that she had not spent time looking at it and didn’t know how other schools do it.

“I’m curious how it works for other schools,” said Fogg. “It’s hard for me to know how to base a decision without knowing.”

Board member and retired science teacher Fred Marin told the board they should be careful about “dabbling in top-down initiatives.”

GM and TRSU board member Fred Marin cautioned against “top down initiatives.” Telegraph file photo

“You better be sure there is real research evidence that it actually does something productive,” said Marin. “Much of the education research isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

Marin went on to call STEM a “fad” that has no real purpose, saying that the country doesn’t “need more scientists.” STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. STEAM integrates Arts components into the work.

The board approved a spending plan of $14,108,968, which is an increase of 9 percent and represents per pupil spending of $16,821.81.

As the budget was being voted on, Studin told the board that explaining the budget to voters is “incumbent upon everyone in this room.” GM board members discussed the materials they would like to have to show residents that this is needed.

“I think you should get some credit for sticking to your goals, which is not something I’ve seen happen in most budget discussions,” said Lauren Baker, a Chester resident who is the technology director for TRSU. “I think you’ve done an incredible job of hanging on by your fingernails to the things you set out to do and that distinguishes this process from any others I’ve ever seen. I just hope you can use that in selling your budget.”

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  1. Ronald Jackson says:

    It saddens me that a retired science teacher of all people would call STEM a “fad” and claim the country “doesn’t need more scientists.”

    First off, no country anywhere has “too many” scientists. The more people we have working on the hard questions, the better.

    Additionally, as Stacia noted, it’s not just “scientists,” it’s nurses, doctors, engineers and, yes, even teachers who get started via STEM courses.

    Finally, it’s not just for the doctors and engineers. Having a mathematically and scientifically literate society is good for the country as a whole. Without literacy, you get things like flat-earth, anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers.

    All of these are scientifically disproven subjects that are yet carried out by the uninformed, the internet trolls or the “financially encouraged” politicians.

  2. Stacia Spaulding says:

    The following thoughts are in response to Fred Marin’s comments that STEM is just a “fad” and that the country “doesn’t need more scientists.”

    According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, “Employment of healthcare occupations is projected to grow 14 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations, adding about 1.9 million new jobs. Healthcare occupations are projected to add more jobs than any of the other occupational groups. This projected growth is mainly due to an aging population, leading to greater demand for healthcare services.”

    Although doctors, nurses, lab technicians, etc. don’t fall under the traditional heading of “scientists,” most of their college courses were in STEM subjects.