BRATTLEBORO—Brattleboro Union High School District #6 School Committee Chair Ricky Davidson recently talked with me about the school budget that’s been passed by the school board. However, it still needs to go before the voters in February — a process that gets very few voters participating.
As the board was debating potential cuts to the budget — which covers Brattleboro Area Middle School, Brattleboro Union High School, and the Windham Regional Career Center — the public learned that the committee was considering a restructuring that would eliminate the position of the district’s diversity coordinator, Mikaela Simms.
Also up for review: the BAMS Peak program, an alternative middle school that, according to the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union website, “offer[s] unique, non-traditional experiences to seventh and eighth graders that empower students by developing academic and social skills.”
A number of people in the community organized and turned out en masse earlier this month to voice their support for these and other programs — community engagement that Davidson said the board welcomed.
Davidson spoke to me about the public participation and the larger context of the budget process. Why were those particular programs, which serve vulnerable populations, targeted?
It turns out there’s some more context that led up to the recent public outcry.
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O.P.: Remind us. This budget, $24 million?
R.D.: I don’t have the exact number in front of me, but a little over $24 million, which is a large amount of money. It’s a little daunting when you think about that. And everything is in there.
There’s a lot of word floating around out there that things are getting cut left and right, and that’s not the case. Yes, some things are being looked at and changed, but we always look at everything.
So the budget has passed the school board, and now we’ll go to the voters for our big annual meeting on Feb. 13 in the high school gym. And that’s where it gets a final approval by the voters.
O.P.: And so it’s actually covering three educational institutions, and the Feb. 13 meeting is important because since BUHS and BAMS and the career center are regional, they serve multiple towns: Brattleboro, Guilford, Putney, Dummerston, and Vernon.
R.D. It’s a partial-year thing for Vernon, so they’re still technically in for this part of this vote. [Editor’s note: Vernon has withdrawn from the school district as part of irreconcilable differences over provisions of Act 46.]
O.P.: OK. Boy, Act 46, it’s changing things, left, right, and center. So if the school budget is important to you, you need to be at that meeting because there’s quite often turnout of what, 8 percent of registered voters?
R.D.: I’ve been on the board for about 15 years now, and we’ve never cracked double digits. And it’s usually lower than 5 percent.
O.P.: How does the budget that was just passed by the school board compare to previous budgets?
R.D.: Every year we say to our administrators that we want a level-service budget that is as close to level-funded as they can get. There are things like negotiations for teacher salaries for the union and health-care costs — things like that we can’t control.
This [final budget] is actually a little bit down from our current year’s budget, but the tax rate will go up by 3.8 percent. So the tax rate is still going up even though the dollar amount is going down.
O.P.: Now that tax increase of 3.8 percent. Is that being triggered by the state’s education funding mechanism and acts 46/60/68?
R.D.: Yes to all of that. It is very complicated, but it’s affected by all of those things: by the education funding formula, by those different acts, by other [laws] that impact how students are counted, how your homes are assessed, how money is transferred. How English-language learners are counted differently from non-English-language learners, how students of different socioeconomic levels are treated.
O.P.: I think we forget, as a state, just how complicated our education funding system is.
R.D.: I think a lot of people think that, “You know, I own a home, this is how much it’s assessed for, this is how much I pay per $100,000 worth of my house, and that goes directly to my schools for the schools.”
And that’s not the way it works. You pay your taxes to the town, it goes to the state, and the state doles it back out based on population of kids and, you know, socioeconomic goals and all kinds of other factors that they factor in.
O.P.: Is Act 46 changing how students are counted?
R.D.: Yeah, that was one of the big things that hit us at the 11th hour, which is why there was a lot of talk in the community and a lot of surprise — and by school board members and by the administration as well.
The state was supposed to give us numbers by the middle of December. When we met on Dec. 18 and had a first look at the overall budget, we still didn’t have those numbers, so we made some assumptions based on past years. Once we finally got those numbers from the state, it was dramatically different.
In Vermont, we’re aging and we’re having fewer children — there are fewer kids in the state. For a number of years , we’ve had a hold-harmless provision, which basically says that if, say, 10 percent of the kids or families move out of a community and a whole bunch of kids leave your school, you wouldn’t have to take that hit all in one year. You’d take it gradually over a few years.
But one of the things that Act 46 did is it took away the hold-harmless provision all at once. So we were going to lose state funding for about 374 students all at once. And all of the Vernon kids are now pulled out of the numbers — another 122 students, something like that. We thought we had another year to count those Vernon students.
So all together, it was 196 students all at once. Now, we knew we were going to lose the hold-harmless provision, but we didn’t know what that number was going to be, and we didn’t get that number until after the board’s first look at the budget.
O.P.: Meanwhile, you had a budget that’s still considered at that time with those [nearly] 200 students in the budget. So there’s a gap between the budget and what the state [gives you to] spend.
R.D.: So the administration then said, “OK, we’ve got to take another look at this budget. Now, I remind you, they found out those numbers around the 20th or 21st of December. So we were going into holidays, into school vacations. There wasn’t another scheduled board meeting.
But the administration took a look at those numbers, and the plan for Jan. 8 was to come to the board meeting with “here are some possibilities of ways that we can make up for this gap in funding of losing these 200 students.”
So they were coming to us with suggestions.
O.P.: I don’t understand why the diversity coordinator was part of that possibility of change, in that realm of possibilities.
R.D.: In the middle of December, when we got that first look at the budget, we were still going up by 3.8 percent, and none of us on the board were really comfortable with that. But that was where we were, and we didn’t want to make any dramatic changes. We thought, “Well, we’ll see if we can get that to the voters and if the voters will accept that. Let’s see what that looks like.”
So the administration came back with some suggestions for ways to keep us below the per-pupil rate, to keep us able to keep the tax rate from going up above that 3.8 percent. And they came in with some suggestions.
One of their suggestions was to take that diversity coordinator out of the budget and do diversity in a very different way and really be creative, maybe a little bit more nimble, about how we do it, and not have it all weighing on one person.
We never really got to have that conversation as a board because the administration, I think, did a really responsible thing: Any staff members who might have been affected by the budget changes or the suggestions that they were making to us were talked to.
O.P.: Oh, so there was more than one position that might have been changed, not just the diversity coordinator.
R.D.: There was the diversity coordinator, there was some from the alternative program Peak at the middle school, there were some positions in the career center, there were positions all over the place that were potential changes.
And the administration, I thought, did a responsible thing.
They went to people who might be affected to say, “Just so that you know, if the budget passes and our suggestions are accepted by the board, it could change how your job is done. It could change some of the things in your job that you do, it could change your job in a very dramatic way.”
That information was shared with them so that they wouldn’t [learn about potential changes in their job or a potential layoff] at a public information session about the budget. But a lot of people took that as we were cutting a whole bunch of things. And really, it was some suggestions of ways to keep our per-pupil costs below the cap, so we wouldn’t have to pay the fine on top of everything else, and to keep us from further raising the tax rate.
But then the community came out.
O.P.: Probably more people came to that budget hearing than normally show up for the annual February vote.
R.D.: It was great to have people there, showing that they care and taking part in participating in the situation. So on one level, it was really exciting. On another level, we didn’t get to have a lot of the conversation that I think the administration thought we were going to have around some of the particulars around things. But we were also under a time crunch to get us to that February meeting.
O.P.: And the 3.8-percent increase: would that have happened regardless of whatever conversations you’d had around shifting positions or cutting positions or...?
R.D.: Yeah, even before we got the numbers from the state, even before we found out about losing almost 200 students out of the budget, the budget was still going to go up by 3.8 percent.
Part of that was contractual agreements that we have with the union. Part of that is health-care reimbursement. And part is health-care-costs-related stuff and some other things that we just don’t have control over.
Because of things like health-care costs, there’s actually very little of that $24 million–plus that we actually have control over.
O.P.: I’m glad you brought that up. I always am completely amazed and maybe it’s because I have legislators telling me, “Oh, the towns have complete local control over their budgets.” There are huge sections of school budgets that school boards have no control over whatsoever.
R.D.: Right. There are only so many pencils and textbooks and computers that they can cut out of a budget before there’s nothing left to deal with. And, luckily, for a bunch of years, we were very creative around staffing.
So we’ve been lucky in our district in that we haven’t had to do staffing cuts or anything like that in a lot of years. That really saved us from having to take these kinds of hits. And it’s been a struggle this year.
O.P.: So, for clarity: the diversity coordinator position is still in the budget?
R.D.: It’s in the budget exactly the way it is this school year. It will be exactly the same next year.
O.P.: Now what about some of the Peak program? There was a little confusion around that.
R.D.: There was definitely some confusion around that.
Peak is the alternative program in the middle school, and it helps a small population of young people who have a hard time accessing education in traditional ways.
One of the things that we’ve talked about with the administration in the last couple of school years is that more and more kids are coming to school unable to access education in a traditional way, because of just not being prepared for school, because of trauma, and because of other things — the opioid crisis, for example — that they’re dealing with outside of school.
So the middle-school principal has been very clear with us that more and more kids are coming to school and are struggling. Part of the reason the tax rate was going up 3.8 percent was that he wanted more alternative help in the middle school. So on top of the two Peak positions, we have four new positions in the middle school to help those kids who are struggling to access their education in a traditional way.
And some of the kids that are in Peak are in other programs within the middle school. They’re finding that these programs start to be successful in middle school, but when students get to the high school, they start to flounder again.
So we plan to carry over some of those alternatives into the high school.
O.P.: To create a transition.
R.D.: To help students transition better into ninth grade, maybe a little bit into the 10th grade, to really help the kids that are struggling the most.
Again, the administration had conversations with the Peak staff to say, “Hey, this may change how you do what you do. And they’re looking at all kinds of other alternatives that other schools have used to deal with to help with some of those kids that are struggling.”
That being said, they were like, OK, let’s figure out how to do this. But there’s actually six positions in the middle school next year and carrying into the high school, so the middle school a little bit of early high school years, to help those kids who are struggling the most.
And it may have meant that Peak was going to go away. It could have meant that Peak was going to stay the same, or that an alternative program would run parallel to Peak, helping kids that Peak doesn’t work for, because not every alternative situation works for every kid, just like every regular education system doesn’t work for every kid.
And that was turned into we were getting rid of it.
R.D.: Yes, Peak might have gone away. But it was never cut out of the budget. It was, “We’re going to look at what’s going to serve the most kids who can’t access education in a traditional way. And what is the best way to meet the needs of those kids?”
O.P.: Given a number of the community’s comments and their response to their concerns around diversity in the school and that children of color — and that all children — are getting as much support as necessary, what’s your takeaway from this last week?
R.D.: I was glad to see so many people come out because they care so much, and that is wonderful. Nobody ever comes to our meetings, so to see people come out because they care — on one level, it was very exciting, very awesome.
On another level, it was a little bit of a struggle, because people were so passionate about how they felt about things. I think that when you’re really passionate about something it’s hard to listen to what people on the other side are saying.
So I think that this started a dialogue. I don’t think it’s ended the dialogue; I think we’re going to continue to have these conversations about diversity, about kids that are falling through the cracks — which, to be honest, is part of the reason why I ran for the school board the first time and why I stay. A lot of times, those kids don’t have a voice. So they need people to be their voice.
O.P.: Some folks in the audience asked the board to consider taking training around diversity. Will the board be considering that?
R.D.: I think definitely. Just this week, I’ve had board members say to me, “This was very eye-opening and educational for me; I wasn’t aware of some of these things.” The board does board education on a pretty regular basis about all kinds of things.
As chair of the board, I’m going to look at when we can do some board education around the diversity issues within our school and all of our diversity issues — not just the racial diversity issues, not just the alternative-education diversity issues, but all of them.