School budget reviewed at floor meeting
MANCHESTER >> A larger than usual crowd of residents — 112 in all, according to election officials — attended the school district floor meeting Monday night at the Manchester Elementary-Middle School gymnasium, approving a tuition rate request from Burr and Burton Academy and conducting a wide ranging discussion on the proposed school budget adopted by the school board,
With the school board's chairman, Brian Vogel, publicly calling on voters to turn down the proposed $11.826 million budget, and Act 46, the state's new education consolidation law imposing a substantial monetary spending penalty on the district, voters came armed with questions. Others posed questions about a perception of struggle and challenges faced by Manchester Elementary-Middle School, which has seen a substantial decline in enrollment over the past decade. Others in the audience offered support for the teachers and staff at MEMS, and urged residents to support the budget, fearing worse consequences if it were defeated.
But unless the number of students enrolled in the district, which covers pre-K-12th grade is reversed, it will be difficult for the school board to match a decline in expenditures to correspond to a decline in the number of students, said School Superintendent Daniel French.
"What you hear about in Manchester is a classic scenario we hear about in northern New England and we hear about in Vermont — we have costs going up and there have been nominal cuts," he said. "Statewide we are reaching a point where this is a critical decision making point for the state."
The state spends more on educating students on a per-pupil basis than any other in the nation, while at the same time seeing a steady erosin in the numbers of students enrolled in its public schools. This unsustainable trend is what drove the legislature last year to craft Act 46, which seeks to encourage neighboring school districts to merge into larger and fewer governance units, in hopes of eventually seeing economies of scale and greater efficiencies slow the rate of spending increases and stabilize them, he said.
There were about 668 "equalized students" — a two year weighted average of students enrolled in the district in fiscal year 2014, and the current fiscal year budget for 2017 projects about 604, according to the town report.
This has the effect of driving up per pupil education spending, and therefore the school district's tax rate. It's premature to know exactly what the tax rate will eventually be, pending further action by the state legislature later this year, French said. It could be anywhere from $1.53 per $100 of assessed property value to $1.59 under a worst case scenario. But even without Act 46, which added a penalty payment of $244 per equalized pupil and accounts for about 4 cents of the tax rate increase, taxes in the school district would going up anyway, he added, if not as much.
Unlike last year, when the school board was able to deploy a $224,000 surplus to lower the tax rate from what it would have been, this year the board did not have that luxury, French said.
"I think the board did a nice job of navigating between cutting costs and maintaining education programs," he said, warning of a potential "downward spiral" if too much of what the school district offered academically was cut and the enrollment decline became even more pronounced in response.
Parents and educators in the audience weighed in on that theme, roughly evenly divided between those worried about the academic environment at MEMS and those defending and supporting the teaching staff.
Suzanne Moore said she and her family had been attracted to move to Manchester because of what they had heard about the schools in the area, such as MEMS and Burr and Burton Academy.
"The teachers we've had since we've moved here have been exceptional," she said. "And yet I see we're really struggling because the children who don't have support at home to create a learning environment for them are overwhelming the ones that do."
While the educators were working hard, she said, she was uncertain about whether to vote for or against the proposed budget, wondering which option would best help drive a momentum for change.
Jamie Kunisch, a parent of three students at MEMS and a former student of the school herself told the audience that "this school is really hurting right now."
"The school needs to be a great place," where parents want to send their children, but right now the school lacked spirit and is "missing something," she said.
Others recounted positive experiences and feelings. David Miceli, a parent of a MEMS' seventh grader, said he had been delighted with what his son had been offered at MEMS.
"Our son's experience has been fantastic," he said. "Everything just really blossomed for him."
Franci Carieri, a grandmother of a MEMS student, urged other townspeople to vote for the school budget, and was distressed by the school board chairman's call to defeat it.
"We need to support public education," she said. "I strongly believe in it."
Children and students there will suffer if the budget is defeated and homes will become harder to sell, she said.
Vogel, the school board chairman, who is also running for re-election to the school board for another 3-year term, and who has sent three of his own children through MEMS, defended his call to voters to reject the budget, which the board adopted by a narrow 3-2 margin in January. He pointed to the substantial amount of penalty money the district would be sending to Montpelier, which roughly translates to about $147,000, as one reason to give the board another try at fashioning a different budget.
"It angers me to no end that the state can tell a community what it can spend to educate its kids; that should be a local decision," he said. "To send money to Montpelier that has absolutely no benefit to our kids I think is irresponsible as a board member."
The school board is exploring other alternatives both Vogel and fellow school director Stephen Murphy said at different points during the nearly three hour-long meeting, which few in the audience left before it was adjourned shortly before 10 p.m. The board is taking part in a merger study under Act 46, to see how the district would fare in a consolidated school board structure with other neighboring districts such as Dorset, Sunderland,Mt. Tabor, Danby and the four towns in the Mountain Towns RED, or regional education district, which includes Londonderry, Weston, Peru and Landgrove. It also has formed its own "ad hoc" committee, which is exploring alternatives outside of Act 46 consolidations, which include whether or not it is feasible to restructure the district as an independent one.
"The other plan is to cut, cut, cut," Murphy said towards the end of the meeting. "Nobody likes to cut."
At the start of the meeting, voters passed by a near unanimous voice vote a request by Burr and Burton Academy for a tuition increase of 1.88 percent from last year's rate of $15,950 to $16,250. This was a marginal increase tailored to take into consideration the difficulties many school districts, like Manchester's were having adjusting to the new environment created by act 46, BBA Headmaster Mark Tashjian said. Their salary and insurance benefits costs were climbing at higher percentages than that, he added.
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