BRATTLEBORO — Voters of the BUHS District #6 five member towns unanimously passed the $27.9 million school budget in a voice vote on Tuesday night.
This budget includes funding for the Brattleboro Union High School, Brattleboro Area Middle School, and Windham Regional Career Center.
The fiscal year 2017 budget increased 0.3 percent - $74,885 - compared to the previous year's budget.
School board chair Robert “Woody” Woodworth said this budget cycle marked the ninth year that the board has asked staff to find budget cuts without reducing the quality of education.
Act 46, Vermont's new education governance bill, added extra pressure, he said.
This legislation includes tax incentives for communities that merge into in what Superintendent Ron Stahley called a “unified governance model.” The five-member towns in the BUHS district - Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney, and Vernon - voted independently to participate in an Act 46 study committee, where their work is ongoing.
The law caps increases in each school's per-pupil spending from one year to the next. If spending exceeds the state's threshold, the district receives a penalty in the form of added tax.
The district's allowable-growth threshold between last year's budget and fiscal year 2017 is 1.18 percent.
The district squeaked under the threshold by $5 per equalized student, or with only a 1-percent increase.
The budget accommodates increased expenses, including a 2.5-percent increase in salaries previously negotiated. Health insurance contributed an 8-percent increase.
Woodworth complimented Stahley, school administrators, and staff for “looking in every corner” to find savings.
Voter turnout improved very slightly compared to the previous year.
Of the total 14,410 eligible voters in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney, and Vernon, 126 people (or 0.8 percent) approved the budget.
Last year, 0.5 percent of district voters participated.
Reduction in force
Stahley has estimated the overall staff reductions roughly equalled five full-time positions.
Some of the savings came from cuts to staff and teaching positions, including a quarter-time teaching position in the middle school's foreign language program for a savings of $12,000.
Stahley disagreed with a few voters who spoke in favor of restoring the position, saying the middle school's smaller class sizes didn't justify the expense.
An amendment proposed by Margaret Cassidy of Putney to raise the budget by $12,000 was defeated 71 to 52.
The district is not requesting capital funds for large projects this year, Woodworth said at last week's public hearing in advance of the vote.
Woodworth said school administrators found savings through shifting staff positions across the three education facilities within District #6: BUHS, Brattleboro Area Middle School (BAMS), and the Windham County Regional Career Center (WRCC). Some staff positions were reduced.
BUHS reductions included one full-time assistant principal, an administrative assistant, and an art teacher. A retiring English teacher will not be replaced.
At BAMS, in addition to the language teacher, one academic support staff position's job was reduced by half.
At the WRCC, a full-time paraprofessional position was cut, along with a one-sixth reduction each in the forestry and business programs and a one-third reduction in the architecture program.
According to Stahley, the administration “strongly believes” the reductions resulted from the district's smaller class sizes and the pressure to remain under the per-pupil spending cap.
The principals worked carefully to protect student programs, Stahley said, but in many cases, the student-to-teacher ratios couldn't justify program costs.
He believes the district maintains excellent programs and opportunities for its students.
Karen Sebastian, head of the BUHS Modern and Classical Languages Department, had submitted a letter to the board asking in vain to secure funding for the position.
According to Sebastian, the small cut carried large consequences for the BAMS students.
“The program is growing: yet staffing is not,” she wrote. “Currently, 1.25 teachers deliver instruction to 311 students in four languages.”
The 0.25 position also provides programming flexibility, Sebastian added, arguing that preserving the middle-school program would have ensured continuity for students who have started language studies in elementary school and who intend to continue them in high school.
The languages program helps students reach graduation standards and obtain college credits, she noted.
Call for more transparency
Members of Brattleboro's Representative Town Meeting Finance Committee submitted their recommendations for the budget.
The committee recommended passing the budget.
But members also called for a more transparent budget development process for fiscal year 2018 and an open conversation about the use of the district's fund balance.
“In general, the committee found it difficult to oversee this budget process,” wrote the members in their report.
Some of the transparency issues the members highlighted included:
• The critical role regular coverage of District #6 board meetings by Brattleboro Community Television played in aiding transparency.
• Long waits for information from Supervisory Union staff. One of the committee's questions went unanswered for two months.
• Information is hard to find and not maintained in a central place online. For example, budget drafts were not published online. Meeting minutes are not published to the website in a timely manner, they wrote.