Wilson: Districts to meet with public on budgets

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It's like clockwork. Every February we celebrate Valentine's Day, the birthdays of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Black History Month. February also is when the two operating school districts of the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union formally present their budgets for the upcoming school year. The budgets must then be voted on by the public on the first Tuesday in March.

There are two important February dates, times and locations to mark on your calendar. First up, the Taconic & Green Regional School District School Board presents its budget at its annual meeting at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 25, at The Dorset School. The following night, Wednesday, Feb. 26, the Mettawee School District School Board hosts its annual meeting at the Rupert Fire Station at 7 p.m. Please join us.

To help the public prepare for these important meetings and the vote on March 3, both T&G and the MSD have prepared reports with data and details on the financial plans for fiscal year 2021. The T&G document is available at each of its five schools and at the town offices of its nine communities: Danby, Dorset, Landgrove, Londonderry, Manchester, Mount Tabor, Peru, Sunderland and Weston. Copies are also available at the Manchester Library. The MSD financial report, meanwhile, has been mailed to all registered voters in Pawlet and Rupert. For both districts, reports are also available by contacting the BRSU office (802-362-2452) and online at BRSU.org.

In building budgets for the upcoming year, both school boards were confronted with challenges created by developments outside of their control.

School choice for secondary education in both districts means that costs are directly proportional to the number of students in the program. A set fee is paid for each child. If secondary enrollment goes down, there are savings. If the number of children in the program increases, expenses rise. In both districts, recent experience points to an increase in students compared to what was budgeted for the current year. Higher secondary education costs account for fully half the budget increase for T&G, and 90 percent of the increased spending at MCS.

Another factor for both school boards was the rising cost of medical insurance. While health cost increases are not new, this year the State of Vermont decided to implement a statewide negotiation for medical insurance programs for public school employees.

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An arbitrator ruled last fall on a plan that will expand medical coverage in Vermont, creating additional costs to all school districts. The full impact of this decision will flow into future fiscal years.

Despite notable increases in secondary education and medical insurance, our school boards worked hard to limit budget growth to 4 percent for T&G and 6 percent for MCS. The best indicator of the boards' financial stewardship can be found in the operating budgets of the programs where they have the most control.

For T&G, K-8 program spending is up by 1 percent. At MCS, K-6 costs are basically flat with a 0.1 percent increase. In the face of declining school enrollment, both school districts have used staff attrition to find savings that allow us to invest in programs that enhance education.

At T&G, the overall budget also includes an increase in pre-kindergarten spending, taking us one step closer to pre-K equity across the district. Note that both districts have also included warnings for setting aside funds for future capital investments in our buildings.

T&G and MSD have also established Tax Stabilization Funds that can be used strategically to address significant cost rises. Despite the overall increase in spending, our projected tax rates are in line with historical experience and well below the threshold in cost per pupil that would trigger a penalty by the State of Vermont. All of these developments are addressed in more detail in the annual reports.

I am extremely proud of the work being done by the educators at our schools to prepare our children for a changing world.

Our teachers are implementing new methods, which result in a more personalized learning for our children. In addition to the basics of literacy and math, students are being taught to communicate, work in groups to solve problems and come up with creative solutions both academically and in their emotional growth. We never forget that we are educating future citizens of a dynamically changing world.


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