SHAFTSBURY >> The Shaftsbury School Board approved their $3.9 million budget on Wednesday, but not before a debate about a math interventionist position revealed deep philosophical divides between board members and administrators.
The board debated that and other budget issues for over 90 minutes, and had not seemed to come to any conclusions before chairman Fran Kinney asked the board to approve a motion to go into executive session for personnel and a student matter, which he directly related to the budget. Upon exiting executive session, the board voted almost immediately to approve the budget as it had been presented at the start of the meeting, without further discussion or changes.
The two most hotly debated items that were considered for cutting from the budget were a $75,000 security upgrade that will re-design the front entryway of the school to make it more secure, and a $71,000 math interventionist, who will work primarily with students in the younger grades who have begun to fall behind their peers at math, in order to stop them from falling irreparably far behind or into special education. The board approved the position last year, but then declined to hire anyone to fill it. The school already employs a reading specialist who performs a similar function for students struggling with reading. According to principal Jeff Johnson, Shaftsbury is the only elementary school in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union without a math interventionist.
Johnson said the security upgrades were recommended by the state police, but are not considered essential, while he recommended that the board leave the math interventionist position in the budget. The tax rate in Shaftsbury, with both in the budget, will be roughly level to last year. Board member Larry Johnson said that it would be difficult to tell what effect the math interventionist was having, and said that the school should wait a few years to see if test scores improve from other initiatives before making any further changes. He also dismissed the testimony of Monument Elementary School administrators, who spoke very highly of their interventionist, and gave the position credit for their test scores, which are among the best in the SU, with Johnson noting that there are many other factors at play. "I'm not convinced that its a model that would work here," he said.
Jeff Johnson said that he was willing to come back after a year with specific data, from only the students the interventionist worked with, to show that the method was working. "We won't know unless we try it," he said. Board member Dave Durfee took the side of the administration, arguing that they had been responsible in keeping the tax rate level, and that this was something that could help students. He pointed out that the tax rate has only grown seven cents over the last six years, or just over 6 percent, in response to Larry Johnson's comments that the residents of Shaftsbury were being hit with unaffordable increases every year.
SVSU Chief Financial Officer Rick Pembroke responded to Larry Johnson's concerns that, despite the tax rate remaining level, the budget is going up, citing Shaftsbury's increasing student population. "Shaftsbury has been a very responsible district over the years compared with the rest of the state," he said, "I think any reasonable person would understand that if you have more students, it will cost more to educate them." He later added, "You guys are in a very good financial place. I can say, you guys are now in one of the best financial situations in the state of Vermont."
Superintendent Jim Culkeen added his voice to those recommending that the position not be cut. "I happen to think that you do need it," he said, "and you should fund it, and you have a data specialist who can come back with real data... there is a problem with math in this school right now, and this is the solution recommended by your principal and endorsed by your superintendent."
After the executive session, the board approved the budget 4-1, with only Holly Bahan voting against. The Shaftsbury tax rate will be blended with the Mount Anthony Union tax rate, which is expected to decrease this year and should be finalized this week, to calculate the final homestead tax rate for Shaftsbury.