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Hard choices are involved in Leland & Gray budget process

TOWNSHEND—Sharp differences between the Leland & Gray Union High School administration and the public were highlighted last Tuesday night as the LGUHS School Board voted to accept the proposed fiscal year 2012 budget by a vote of 10-4.

The budget of more than $6.3 million is nearly level-funded and will require no property tax increase.

The public will vote by Australian ballot on the budget as proposed Wednesday, Feb. 2. A budget information meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 5, and the school district holds its annual meeting Tuesday, Feb. 1.

“This budget reflects the fiscal realities of (and educational hopes for) the Leland & Gray community,” wrote Principal Dorinne Dorfman to the board regarding the 2011-12 budget decisions. “Reductions in departments and co-curricular activities reflect low student enrollment and fiscal constraints.”

Low enrollments in art, foreign language, health, music, and family and consumer science classes dictated fractional reductions in teacher hours for those subjects, according to Dorfman, Windham Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Steven B. John, and WCSU Chief Financial Officer Frank Rucker.

While teachers in those subjects have had their hours reduced, and certain classes have been consolidated, no faculty member has been dismissed. 

Two classes, music theory and a middle school health class, are to be discontinued.

An example typical of most of the reductions covers foreign languages.

“Low course enrollments warrant reductions in Chinese and French offering,” Dorfman writes. “Chinese will be reduced from 0.75 to 0.67 FTE (full time equivalent). The responsibility of teaching a Chinese course through the Virtual High School (i.e. online) increases the position by 0.33 FTE for a total of 1.0 FTE. Providing an online course in Chinese increases the number of L&G students participating in (online) courses, which have been oversubscribed in 2010-11.”

Similar reductions cover French, but, Dorfman writes, “Since student participation in one, two, or even three foreign languages over the course of six years is a priority for Leland & Gray, in the 2011-12 school year, the department will offer yearlong courses in Chinese and French to seventh- and eighth-graders. Students who complete two years of middle school foreign language may earn one high school credit.”

John believes “more draconian measures” will take place if budget deficits are not at least partially resolved.

“What is lost here is student convenience,” he said. “We have not eliminated anything. We have larger classes and independent study, and the students can access subjects in the virtual high school. This proposal considers 38 teachers. No retiring is required.”

“Given the economic realities, you determine course enrollment and state requirements, and you (create) an action plan,” said Dorfman.

But her focus, she says, is equally on the academic needs of the school. 

“You look at areas of weakness, areas that need attention based on standardized tests,” she said. “We need a strong literacy program here.” 

She said that results show that in grade 11, students here did not meet state proficiency standards in reading, writing, math, and science. She has devised a program that invites teachers to take leadership roles in science, math, and English, participating in professional development based each discipline’s best practices.

She has also working to redesign some biology, chemistry and physics classes with the goal of making them advanced placement (AP) courses.

“In 2008, 29 percent of Vermont high school students participated in AP courses,” she said. “Currently, 25 percent of L&G seniors participate in one or more AP classes. The goal is to increase the percentage to 35 percent of students in every graduating class, and increase the number of AP courses from two to four.”

Opponents of the proposed budget wanted cuts to academic programs restored, generally agreeing that the cuts represent a pattern that devalues academics, and that administrators too easily accept certain fiscal constraints. They also said they wanted a more comprehensive budget that voters could accept or reject by ballot Feb. 2.

Board members and administrators have also received at least 22 letters, many detailed, from current students, alumni, and others advocating the status quo or better.

Board member Diane Newton, education director at Hildene, the Lincoln home in Manchester, voted against the budget.

“Here’s my thinking,” she said. “Leland & Gray’s extraordinary music program and Journey East (a program that sends students studying the Chinese language to China for several weeks) engages students at all levels.  It seems totally illogical to compromise our extraordinary music program. I wanted the process to go another step to let the voters decide.”

Newton pointed out that Congressional actions last year provided funds to restore jobs for teachers across the country who were dropped because of budget constraints. The money is expected to be distributed this year, but no one knows how or when.

She brought this up just as the meeting was ending and Board Member Dave Edgar from Newfane moved that if that money were forthcoming, about $19 million for Vermont, or about $100,000 for Leland & Gray, it would be used to restore faculty cuts.

“That passed unanimously,” Newton said. 

Edgar was unavailable for comment.

Current senior Melissa Soule — who recently won early admission status at Williams College, where she intends to study drama — is quoted often in newspapers and an extremely active student. She feels, because of her continuing involvement in school affairs, that she’s in a position to comment on the reduced budget.

“As a student organizer for Dr. Dorfman and also a Rotarian, where I see a lot of people (including Rucker), I’m in a position to comment,” Soule said.

She feels that certain things are going downhill fast, especially in the music department. “We used to have a prize-winning marching band, and now we don’t. We have a band, but not a marching band.  I went to school concert recently, and there were 120 kids involved. You have to start music in grades four, five, and six, and give music the opportunity to blossom.”

She agrees that economic issues can dictate budget constraints but she says, “I do not understand why these particular cuts were necessary I went through the budget line by line and I came up with $65,000 in maintenance costs, like computer repairs, that we could do ourselves.”

She also takes exception to the long-range planning practiced by the superintendent’s office. “They’re looking at declining enrollments four years down the road. But if you think of it, four years is someone’s whole high school education.”

While she agrees that increasing the budget could result in property tax increases, she says, “My basic argument is that we should give the public more choice.”

Patti Dickson of Jamaica, who works on hotel bookings at Stratton, is also distressed by the music cutbacks. Her daughter, a junior, has learned to write music recently and now writes her own pieces, she said.

“My big hope and desire is that everyone who votes looks at the budget carefully and doesn’t vote just on the bottom line, “ Dickson said. “I also want to encourage parents to work on academics at the school with their kids.  You can accomplish a lot doing that.”

Susan Misnick, a school board member from Newfane, who is a computer programmer at the School for International Training, also voted no on the proposed budget. 

“I just wanted voters to get a chance to see if the people in the room were representative,” she said.

“It’s a chess game of the first order,” said Barbara Guerrero Marchant, Leland & Gray librarian and president of the teachers’ union. “It’s hard to know how to move.” 

She takes exception to basing cuts on low enrollments, noting that the fractional reductions to someone’s teaching load affect a real person, and some staff facing cuts may seek other jobs. “It’s not a good formula. Small classes are good.”

She concedes that budget reductions are bound to affect the curriculum and devoutly wishes there were new ways to fund education in the face of declining enrollments.

“It’s the continuing whittling away of education,” she said. She also bemoans the lack of interest and understanding among the voters.

Marchant is glad that neither the board nor the administration “fell for the ‘Challenges for Change’ program.”

This voluntary budget reduction plan asked all the state’s 280 school boards to reduce their budgets by at least 2 percent to save an estimated $23 million. Current figures indicate that a majority of the budget plans did not meet that challenge.

“It is regrettable that one of the first jobs for the new principal was to cut back on the teaching staff,” Marchant noted. “But she (Dorfman) is very focused on academics, and I think she can communicate that to everyone.”

Since projections predict continuing enrollment decline, Marchant sees an inevitable effect on taxes. 

“You get what you pay for,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #81 (Wednesday, December 29, 2010).

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