As School Boards Write Budgets, Community Debate Over Education Spending Continues

Oct 10, 2018

State government almost shut down earlier this year, and the fight was largely over education funding.

And all of those debates in Montpelier, and negotiations over taxes and education costs? They’re all rooted in the decisions that local school boards make around this time of year.

Over the next few months, school boards across Vermont will write their budgets in preparation for Town Meeting Day. Those local spending plans are what ultimately drive the conversations in the Statehouse over how we’ll be able to continue supporting our education system.

The West River Modified Union Education District was formed when the voters in Newfane, Townshend, Brookline and Jamaica approved their Act 46 plan. And now for the very first time, these four towns are working together to write a pre-K-through-12 budget.

Right out of the gate, there’s controversy.

The board wants to move all of the sixth grade students up to Leland & Gray Union Middle School, and if they make those changes, the increased staffing has to show up in the budget they’re working on.

The proposal raised a lot of interest and at a recent meeting in Townshend, the room was packed — mostly with community members who don’t like the idea.

“How we educate our kids is one thing. How our community feels about it is just as important,” said Fiona Chevalier at the meeting. “And if we have sixth graders going to the middle school next fall, with parents that have high anxiety, the kids are going to have more anxiety and it’s not going to be as successful.”

At a recent board meeting in Townshend, dozens of parents and community members came out to mostly speak out against the proposal to send next year's sixth grade class to the middle school.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

As Vermont school boards put together next year’s budgets, there will be conversations just like this all over the state, as the boards talk about cutting a foreign language or adding an art teacher or — in case of the West River district — moving the sixth graders up into the middle school.

Superintendent Bill Anton said for districts like his that merged under Act 46, this upcoming budget process presents a whole host of new challenges.

“This is the first time we’re going to be looking at this as a system,” Anton said. “And we’re going to be building around a $10 million budget, and we’re going to be looking at serving 600 students over five towns for the very first time. So as decisions are made, they’ll have ripple effects through other decisions.”

And it’s not just Act 46 that’s ramping up the pressure on school boards this year.

"I have a hard time with the equity jargon we get from the state that has come with Act 46. It rewards the larger schools. It rewards putting more students under one roof. And how is that equitable to small schools like Newfane and Townshend and Jamaica? It's not." — Cliff Passino, parent of Townshend Elementary student

Vermont’s declining enrollment and rising education costs are nothing new, and school boards have been wrestling with those numbers for a decade or so at this point.

But for the past two years, Gov. Phil Scott and the Legislature have played a high-stakes game of chicken, pushing each other to the brink as they try to come up with ways to control local education spending.

The problem is those fights happen in Montpelier in the spring — long after the budgets are approved.

And so Vermont School Boards Association executive director Nicole Mace says boards are putting together their spending plans this year with a wary eye toward what Montpelier might come up with next.

“We’re entering another budget cycle where there’s emphasis on education funding but no clarity around details or approach,” said Mace. “So I think many school boards are sort of, you know, bracing themselves for another cycle of this putting together a budget and having some last-minute curveballs thrown at them.”

Mace says the truth of the matter is as long as Vermonters put their stock in local decision-making, there’s not a lot lawmakers or the governor can do to directly stop districts from spending their money on their schools.
 

Mike Harrigan, dean of academics and innovation at Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School, holds a map of the school up for parents. Some parents are concerned about having sixth-grade students interact with high school students on a daily basis.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

In the West River district, the budgetary decision to send the sixth graders up to the middle school next year has everybody talking.

“For me it’s hard to decide because there’s pros and cons to all schools,” said Joe Vachon, a fifth-grade student at Townshend Elementary School. “Like there’s a pro to elementary schools — it’s a little bit easier. And then when you go to middle school and stuff, it would probably get harder because they don’t essentially know your skills in math and stuff, quite good as elementary, or the first school you started in.”

So Joe’s kind of on the fence, but when a classmate reminds him that he’d be able to bring his cell phone to middle school, he says that would definitely get a "yes" vote from him.

But no one’s really asked the kids.

“I feel like parents and kids should vote,” Joe said.

Teacher Kris Jerz talks to the fifth-sixth grade class at Townshend Elementary School. The school board wants to move the sixth-grade class into the middle school next year.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Cliff Passino has a daughter in the fourth grade at Townshend Elementary, and he’s dead set against moving the sixth-graders up to the middle school next year.

Passino says he’s worried about how all the budgetary pressures and new Act 46 decision-making process will affect small towns like his.

“I have a hard time with the equity jargon we get from the state that has come with Act 46,” Passino said. “It rewards the larger schools. It rewards putting more students under one roof. And how is that equitable to small schools like Newfane and Townshend and Jamaica? It’s not.”

The school board is committed to sending the sixth-graders up to the middle school, and they say they’ll write a budget that reflects that.

But parents are still pushing back.

At the last meeting they presented a petition asking for a townwide vote on the decision. If they don’t get the special vote, and if the budget includes sending the sixth grade up, then the fight will ultimately be decided when the budget is voted on on Town Meeting Day.

This story is part of a long-term VPR project called "Multiple Choice: The Price and Cost of Education." 

Explore the full series here: https://bit.ly/2pKW4Xc

During the 2018-2019 school year, VPR's Howard Weiss-Tisman will follow the West River Modified Union Education District and file reports as the school district tries to navigate this change and uncertainty. In the course of the project, we'll meet the families, school staff and community members who make the whole deal work, every day.