GM school board: Good budget despite hikes Directors vow to start early, keep working on budget process

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In a little over a month, voters in Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish and Chester will be asked to approve a school budget of $14,108,968, which represents an increase of more than 9 percent. During that time, the members of the Green Mountain Unified School District board representing those towns will be telling them why they should pass it.

The board oversees Cavendish Town and Chester-Andover elementaries and Green Mountain Union High.

“It’s been a very challenging year to build a budget because of the many unknowns,” GM board chair Joe Fromberger told The Telegraph, referring to a dramatic rise in health-care costs and questions concerning the number of  students that would come to Green Mountain after the Black River High School closes in at the end of June.

‘It’s been a very challenging year to build a budget because of many unknowns.’

Joe Fromberger

“The board was also very serious about adding courses and programs that would improve education while making GM a more attractive school to students outside the district,” said Fromberger, of Andover. Those included elementary and middle school STEAM programs that would include topics like robotics, early second language in the elementary schools and a concentration on early literacy as a way to keep children on track and reduce the number of students needing special education.

Handicapped by fixed-cost increases

After beginning the process two months early and identifying those priorities, the board learned that the cost of providing employee health care would rise by 12.9 percent in the following year and that beginning in 2021, due an arbitrator’s decision, the schools must pay the first $4,200 of employees’ out-of-pocket medical costs. Other health-care changes allow support staff who previously could get health care insurance for themselves, but not their families, to now have family coverage. This was estimated to add nearly $300,000 to the budget alone.

‘It’s not perfect and there are definitely things we still want to do to improve what we offer our students, but for the first time since I’ve been on the board, I don’t feel like we’re just settling.’

Deb Brown
GM Finance Committee

Health care and other increases over which the board has no control totaled more than $573,000 and included a $118,684 hike for vocational education and a $131,147 jump in the special education assessment from Two Rivers Supervisory Union, which provides central office services, special education and other shared programs.

“We were handicapped by increases in costs that we had no control over but we decided on important priorities and did a pretty good job of getting those off the ground,” said Michael Studin, vice chair of the GM Finance Committee who, with Chair Deb Brown, presided over the process. Both are Chester representatives. Brown started the budgeting but had to step aside in December to recover from a surgery.

Early on, Brown took the board through a long list of possible additions to the budget and rather than spending a lot of time and getting bogged down on one or another, asked the committee to informally vote up or down on each. Within a short time, the items the board would support became clear and several SU initiatives —  like buying the TD Bank building on Main Street in Chester for a pre-school for $500,000 — were shelved. In time, GM board members also pushed back on initiatives to offer transportation and food service as SU services that would have put a greater cost on Green Mountain.

Among the items that the committee added to the budget are another guidance counselor for the high school to handle the influx of new students from BRHS, a K-3 “floater” teacher for Chester-Andover Elementary to help with early literacy, increased teacher hours in elementary STEAM and in middle school social studies and taking the nurse at Cavendish Town Elementary to five day a week from four. The board also created and added to some supply budgets, increased a proposed part time STEAM teacher at GMHS to full time and set aside $75,000 in capital and transportation reserves.

Tuition revenue was never clear

On the revenue side of the equation, the board never really knew what it was working with because there wasn’t an estimate of how many new students would be coming in the fall, each bringing a $17,000 tuition. Even as late as  Jan. 6, a budget brought by the TRSU central office showed 45 students out of a possible 134 who could come from the Ludlow-Mt. Holly district. On that basis of that number which relied on a survey taken earlier, the SU proposed cutting all of the GM board’s initiatives.

‘I hope that with a new superintendent (budgeting) will be a more transparent process and that we can all paddle in the same direction.’

Michael Studin
Vice Chair,
GM Finance Committee

The finance committee originally upped the estimate by 22 students, but Superintendent Meg Powden told the board that it would not be “fiscally responsible” to make that estimate. She told the board that it looked as though the Agency of Education would approve the Black River Independent School so GM would not see any of the students that had made that option their first choice. And so the board reduced the new anticipated students to 12, making it necessary to look to the proposed budget for more reductions.

Board and budget priorities after the Finance Committee voted on them. Click to enlarge image

For the third year in a row, the administration told the board that it was not the right time to begin the elementary second language program envisioned as an educational opportunity in the Act 46 merger process. Looking at the large increase in the budget, board member Doug McBride of Cavendish relented, but promised he would expect it next year, while board member Kate Lamphere suggested that the staff be given the task of figuring out how to implement the program and report back to the board. Lamphere is also from Cavendish.

On Jan. 16, the board was bumping up against a deadline for printing the annual report ahead of Town Meeting Day and the SU was asking it to approve the spending plan, which would increase the per pupil cost from $15,938 to $16,821. McBride suggested working a bit longer on finding a number of small cuts that could take the per pupil cost down, but the board went ahead and approved the plan.

“The increase was more than I wanted, but it’s one the first times since I’ve been involved (on school boards) that we have been able to offer more education opportunities,” said Studin. “In the past, the budgets increased while education lagged behind. Now we are giving those opportunities to our students.”

“Going forward, we need to look to be more efficient and look for costs that can be cut and money that can be saved,” said Studin. “Doug got us started on that, but we ran out of time.”

McBride also suggested that funds that are not spent this year – including health-care costs – be held aside rather than used to pay for other unbudgeted items as it was last year.

Improving the process

While McBride had advocated for beginning the budget process in the late spring or early summer, the finance committee started with its priorities retreat in early September and got going in earnest later that month. Rather than having a smaller committee do the work and report back to the board — which meant repeated presentations by faculty, staff and administrators —  the full board decided it would act as the finance committee.

This “process was better than in the past,” said Studin. “Having the entire board work on the budget cut out redundancy and gave everyone a view of what was going on. I liked starting earlier than in the past, but we still ended jammed up at the end. We were a bit hamstrung by the TRSU budget process and I appreciate that our members on the TRSU board didn’t sign off on that budget until the (GM) board had a look at it.”

In an email to The Telegraph, Brown seemed to agree: “I’m pretty proud of our committee and the work we did even before I had to step aside. We made a plan, we set priorities that we felt had the students best interest in mind and we stuck to those as best we could.”

‘We need to start the next budget cycle in April…with a zero budget and with our end goals and build a budget to those goals.’

Doug McBride
GM Finance Committee

At the Jan. 16, Chester resident Lauren Baker, who is the technology director for TRSU, told the board,  “I think you should get some credit for sticking to your goals. That distinguishes this process from any others I’ve ever seen.”

McBride also praised the board’s commitment to “improving the district’s standard of education” but said that the budget also reflects the failure to address escalating costs.

McBride, like others, is looking to improve the process. “We need to start the next budget cycle in April and stop using the ‘additive’ model of budgeting. Instead we need to start with a zero budget and with our end goals and build a budget to those goals.”

“Unless the board is prepared to reduce administrative costs, raise the 3.25 staff to student ratio, and find ways to deliver quality special education at lower costs, our educational costs and taxes will continue to increase at unsustainable rates,” he said.

“I hope that with a new superintendent (budgeting) will be a more transparent process and that we can all paddle in the same direction,” said Studin.

“I’m really proud of the budget we’re presenting. It’s not perfect and there are definitely things we still want to do to improve what we offer our students, but for the first time since I’ve been on the board, I don’t feel like we’re just settling,” said Brown.

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