BRATTLEBORO—The final big jigsaw piece needed to establish the new Windham Southeast School District locked into place on June 25 when just over 200 voters approved the district’s $50.3 million fiscal year 2020 budget at the new district’s first annual meeting.
The budget represents a per-equalized-pupil spending of $18,184. This amount falls below the state’s spending threshold of $18,311. Districts that exceed the spending threshold are penalized with a higher tax rate.
During the three-hour meeting, voters expressed fast support for increasing the budget by $100,000. The money will help fund the WSESD Office of Diversity, Equity and Social Justice’s programming.
Several voters, however, balked at the district’s plans to install a synthetic athletic field for the high school and middle school.
Building the budget
For voters who couldn’t make the two budget information sessions prior to the June 25 vote, WSESD Board chair Kristina Naylor reprised her presentation.
She explained that the first combined budget for the newly created district will serve pre-kindergarten-through-grade-12 education in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney.
Naylor reminded the audience that the fiscal year 2020 budget funds the transition under Act 46 from individual school districts to the merged WSESD.
The short time frame the boards worked under means that voters were to consider something that is not a “true unified budget,” she said.
Instead, she called it a “smooshing together” of the budgets initially created for the member schools.
This combined budget has received the scrutiny of 28 board members and — in the case of Brattleboro, Dummerston, and Putney, whose initial budgets were prepared in time for their respective annual town meetings this spring — voter approval, Naylor added.
School board members from each member town highlighted increases in their individual budgets. Most of the increases stemmed from jumps in the cost of health care or from negotiated contracts.
Board member Tim Morris of Putney noted that the number of second-grade students at Putney Central School had increased from 25 to 28. This increase required the school to hire an additional teacher.
Naylor pointed out that Dummerston School also had additional expenses because of its new pre-kindergarten program, projected to save the school money in the long-term by helping students receive early interventions for skills they need help with.
Board member David Schoales thanked the audience for attending the meeting and “watching over the students.”
“This has been a complex and very painful process,” he said, referring to the Act 46 merger.
An amendment in favor of equity
Robin Morgan of Brattleboro made a motion from the floor to increase the school budget by $100,000. While state law prohibits voters from dictating how a school board spends funds, Morgan explained that she was making the amendment with the intention of supporting diversity, equity, and social-justice programming in the WSESD schools.
The funding will help create “a more just and humane world,” Morgan said.
Morgan said that both the Brattleboro Town School Board, of which she is a member, and the WSESD had respectively shown their support to raise the needed funds.
Morgan explained that at a June 5 board meeting, Diversity Coordinator Mikaela Simms outlined a five-year plan to change the culture of the local schools. Simms spoke about the necessity to better meet the needs of students of color [“District will seek funds to support diversity efforts,” News, June 19].
At that meeting, Simms said that if raised, the funding would be used for “infrastructure in the schools,” including designating school leaders for social justice and diversity.
That leadership would help reinforce and engage teachers, helping them internalize subsequent trainings in these matters by consultants.
Simms told the story of a student who told her, unprompted, “I haven’t had one teacher of color since I’ve been here.” She described her struggle to engage the demoralized and disengaged student in passing his classes.
“We have to act like the house is on fire, because kids are slipping through the cracks,” Simms said. “This is not just about optics, it’s really about our students, and it just becomes harder and harder for them as they get older.”
Morgan echoed Simms by saying that 20 percent of students in the Brattleboro schools identify as a race other than white. Yet, less than 1 percent of the school staff are people of color.
“What messages are we implicitly sending” to students who are indigenous, LGBTQ, or persons of color? Morgan asked.
She added that the $100,000, if spent as requested, would help the WSESD schools become “affirming and transforming institutions.”
In response to an audience member’s question, Superintendent Lyle Holiday said that the supervisory union has voted to increase the staffing in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice from one person — Simms — to add another half-time position.
That level of staffing to cover the 10 district schools “is only a token and does not cover all that we have to do,” Holiday said.
Jody Normandeau of Dummerston expressed concern about the proposal. In her opinion, such a budget increase should have gone through the formal budget-building process.
“It’s a last-minute amendment, and it’s a costly amendment,” she said.
She recommended that the school board instead create a subcommittee to develop a funding and programming proposal for a later budget.
Erich Kruger, also of Dummerston, spoke in favor of the amendment. He said that that town has an excellent formal budgeting process and that every year, at Annual Town Meeting, at least one voter usually makes a last-minute amendment for the body to consider.
This is what participatory government looks like, he said.
“The world is diverse,” Kruger added. “We in Vermont are far from that.”
Later in the meeting, under new business, Kruger proposed a non-binding resolution, asking the WSESD board use the funds for programming and efforts consistent with a one-sheet proposal written by Simms and distributed to annual meeting attendees.
The proposal included using the new funds for teacher training, curriculum evaluation and creation, field trips, and books. It also outlined efforts to support the “hiring and retention of diverse staff.”
The amendment and non-binding resolution passed overwhelmingly on a voice vote.
Synthetic turf wars
Despite being a topic of discussion at the administration level for several years, and despite being part of a long-term capital project, multiple audience members spoke against Brattleboro Union High School installing a synthetic playing surface on Natowich Field.
At a June 12 meeting, voters authorized the Brattleboro Union High School District #6 School Board to borrow up to $750,000 for up to five years to install synthetic turf. The entire project is expected to cost up to $1.25 million.
BUHS Principal Steve Perrin said creating a synthetic turf field has been on the table since 2002. The school has added a variety of sports, but it has not expanded the footprint of its playing fields, he said.
One of the advantages of a synthetic field is that the school can hold more practices on the turf than it can on the natural grass, which needs time to recover, Perrin said.
Also, the turf field can be used earlier in the spring season because the school won’t need to wait for it to dry out, he added.
“We’re decades beyond Astroturf,” Perrin said. He added that many studies have ruled the materials safe.
“Is anything perfectly safe?” he said. “No, I would never tell you that. Would I let my children play on synthetic surface? Absolutely.”
WSESD Business manager Frank Rucker said that the budget does not include any debt service for the project in fiscal year 2020 because the reserve fund can cover those expenses.
Dick DeGray of Brattleboro spoke against the project multiple times during the meeting, at one point saying that the project had not been properly vetted.
Instead, DeGray tried to amend the budget to use $500,000 in reserve funds to lower the tax burden.
This amendment was overruled by Moderator Steven Brown, who deemed it out of order because voters can’t dictate how a school board spends money under state law.
Luz Elena Morey of Brattleboro also spoke against installing synthetic turf, claiming the materials are toxic.
Daniel Quipp of Brattleboro agreed. He asked why the school district was trying so hard to move beyond its natural resources.
“Maybe we need to listen to what our land tells us,” he said.
Establishing a capital reserve fund and considering climate change
Voters later approved an article authorizing the new board to establish a capital reserve fund. Voter approval to establish the bank account is required by state law.
Under new business, Kurt Daims of Brattleboro proposed a non-binding resolution that the WSESU school directors include climate crisis in every regular meeting of the school directors.
Lori Cartwright, also of Brattleboro, made a friendly amendment to compel the school board to make district purchasing decisions through a lens of environmental, racial, and social equity.
The body also passed a non-binding resolution asking the school board to offer child care at all its meeting.
Rucker estimated that the $100,000 added to the FY20 budget will raise the district’s overall tax rate from $1.704 to $1.708. He estimated that increase equaled approximately $4 for every $100,000 of assessed property.
The final amount for individual taxpayers will vary depending on their town, due to the state formula to adjust for the difference between the assessed value of property versus the same property’s value in the real estate marketplace.
Another factor is whether a household qualifies for income sensitivity.
The starting tax rates for the WSESD member towns:
• Brattleboro: $1.646 for every $100 of property
• Dummerston: $1.647
• Guilford: $1.694
• Putney: $1.713
Of the 14,529 registered voters in the WSESD, 1.5 percent attended the meeting. Per capita, Dummerston and Guildford had the highest rate of turnout.
More voters — an increase of 90 percent — attended the June meeting, compared to an organizational meeting held earlier this year. According to the minutes of the new district’s organizational meeting held in February, 0.79 percent of registered voters attended.