The Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union board this week unanimously approved a nearly $5 million budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
The supervisory union manages the operations of its three-member districts, the Taconic & Green Regional School District, Mettawee School District and Winhall Town School District, which together encompass a dozen towns across four counties.
Each of the three districts helps to fund the work of the BRSU, which also relies upon grant funding and other revenue sources.
The $4,991,733 budget represents a 9.6 percent increase over the current fiscal year’s budget.
A substantial chunk of that increase is attributable to an increase in the line item related to student and staff support, which includes new software purchases; the establishment of a new, partially grant-funded multi-tiered system of supports and equity coordinator position; and a position responsible for investigating hazing, harassment and bullying, which previously was housed only within the T&G budget but for next year would serve Mettawee, too.
Another part of the spending increase stems from BRSU obtaining a new federal grant worth nearly $400,000.
That grant will be used to cover salaries and benefits for at least three additional positions — a nurse, executive functioning coach and social worker — meant to “facilitate educational programming and school operations as we transition back to sort of typical, non-COVID practices,” said BRSU Superintendent Randi Lowe.
Those three positions, like the funding source itself, might not continue beyond the 2021-2022 school year.
A previous draft of the 2022 budget included a full-time assistant superintendent — BRSU has not had one since Lowe vacated that role to replace Jackie Wilson upon her retirement last summer — but the organization instead has opted to establish the MTSS/equity coordinator role, which will “pick up a lot of the responsibilities” of an assistant superintendent, according to BRSU business manager Sue Wilborn.
“This is a change from last month,” Lowe said during the board’s Jan. 4 meeting, describing the pivot as following from her consideration of how BRSU still has “work to do” with implementing MTSS practices, which relate to strengthening support for students with various needs.
Lowe said her aim is for the MTSS/equity coordinator position to not become a permanent position.
“Putting a position like this in place for a short period of time, with a very transparent, clear expectation ... for what’s going to be accomplished, I think we will have a much faster change process,” she said.
Despite the increase in overall spending by BRSU, the related increase in the assessments that the three districts must pay to the supervisory union for 2022 will be mitigated by the planned use of $145,000 in surplus funds. BRSU used only $50,000 in surplus funds for the current fiscal year.
“This is a bigger number than we would typically return (to the districts),” Wilborn said.
But with a property yield decrease expected to increase tax rates in the districts by at least 3 cents, “I think we have to return some of these funds to the districts to help them out,” Wilborn said.
The drawback to this approach, as a memo included in board members’ packets explained, is that the “same level of surplus may not be available for return the following year, so local budgets will increase when assessments are included with less of a surplus offset.”
BRSU board member Dick Dale endorsed the idea of including an explanation of this use of surplus funds in informational materials shared with voters ahead of districts’ annual meetings in March. Voters don’t vote directly on the BRSU’s general or special education budgets, he said, “but it’s important that everybody understand that we have taken a hard look at circumstance.”
The BRSU board on Monday also approved the $10.5 million special education budget for the next fiscal year, which represents a decrease in spending of about 1.1 percent.
The supervisory union expects to end the current fiscal year with a surplus of $838,000 in its special education budget, partly because of the pivot to remote learning amid the coronavirus pandemic. Similar to the approach for the general budget, the approved special education budget for next year calls for using $500,000 in surplus funds to help offset district assessments.