BARRE — The price of pursuing a five-year plan that would eventually put a personal computing device in the hands of every student at Barre City Elementary and Middle School accounts for nearly $300,000 of a budget increase that — at least for the moment — is still sitting at roughly $1.4 million.
Though some board members have been openly skeptical that Barre voters will tolerate what would amount to a 10 percent increase in spending, that is technically what is on the table after one wheel-spinning meeting of the board’s finance committee last week.
Not for long.
This week board member Sonya Spaulding said the committee decided after nearly three hours of discussion to press “reboot” on their deliberations — requesting a baseline budget instead of the blue-sky wish list initially provided by school administrators.
“(We’re) trying to build a budget from the bottom up rather than cutting it from the top down,” Spaulding said, conceding that the committee felt like it was flying blind.
“How much of an increase do you think we should be shooting for, because right now we’re just shooting in the dark?” she said to board members at their monthly meeting Monday.
Spaulding didn’t get an answer to that question, though the board seemed supportive of the committee’s plan to strip out all discretionary spending involving new initiatives — including several proposed staff positions and a hefty investment in upgrading and expanding the school’s computing capability.
According to Spaulding, the committee wants to answer one threshold question before debating proposals that range from budgeting $50,000 for new playground equipment to hiring an assistant principal for $70,000.
“What will the budget look like without adding a single ‘new’ thing?” Spaulding asked.
According to Superintendent John Bacon, the answer will soon be available. He said Business Manager Mark Lyons finished work on the baseline budget requested by the committee earlier in the day but that he didn’t have time to review it before this week’s board meeting.
The committee will have that draft in hand when it resumes its deliberations Monday at 5:30 p.m., though Bacon said he and Lyons won’t be able to attend due to a conflict involving the Spaulding High School Board.
School commissioners seemed generally receptive to the idea of starting with a no-new-anything budget, noting that maintaining the status quo could easily require spending $800,000 more than the $11.05 million that voters approved this year. That estimate probably isn’t far off given negotiated pay raises, an anticipated 14 percent increase in health insurance costs and a projected $600,000 spike in the cost of special education.
The earliest draft of the budget reflected more than $200,000 in salaries and benefits for two new middle school teachers, an additional music teacher and a part-time health instructor. Some or all of those positions could be restored during deliberations, but — like funding for the assistant principal, the playground equipment and new computers — they would have to be added back to the budget by the committee, the board or both.
Although the board didn’t get a look at the baseline budget, members did hear a pitch for a plan to invest roughly $290,000 in computers and yet-to-be-identified personal computing devices.
Technology Coordinator Michael Dickinson outlined what he characterized as a two-tiered proposal that would replace all of the school’s existing computers over the next five years while acquiring additional devices — most likely tablets — for all students by the end of that time frame.
Dickinson acknowledged that would be “very expensive” but said most of the school’s 255 student computers are “obsolete.” The vast majority, he said, are at least six years old and school officials have not adequately funded a replacement plan that would keep the school technologically up to date.
In addition to replacing the school’s aging computers, Dickinson said his plan would begin to move Barre’s pre-K-through-8 school down the path envisioned by Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has endorsed the concept of 1:1 computing capacity in all Vermont schools.
According to Dickinson, Vermont and several other states are requesting proposals from vendors for a device — most likely a tablet — that would cost between $300 and $400 for use by students. He said the devices could come in handy next year when the state shifts to an online standardized test that will replace the New England Common Assessment Program.
In any event, Dickinson said the board could expect to spend roughly $1.50 in support for every $2 it spends on equipment.
Given other budgetary constraints, school board member Leslie Walz said it would be hard pressed to fully fund Dickinson’s request in the coming fiscal year.
“Do you have a toned-down version?” she asked.
Dickinson said he considered fully funding his five-year replacement program as critical and hoped the board would budget some money to purchase new devices.
In other business, board members referred to their finance committee a proposal that they retain the services of a professional grant writer to pursue outside funding for the school playground, adopted a new anti-bullying policy, and were told that a draft audit that should soon be available showed the school district closed the books on the fiscal year that ended June 30 with a $91,000 fund balance.
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