• Montpelier school district: Locked costs to drive future budgets
     | February 09,2013

    MONTPELIER — Even before voters decide on the Montpelier school district budget in a few weeks, the board is talking about next year’s vote.

    The early discussion comes as the district faces increases of about $500,000 each fiscal year for the next three years due to negotiated contracts and health benefits, Superintendent Brian Ricca told the City Council last month.

    Because of those agreements, the budget goes from $16,986,916 for the upcoming school year to nearly $17.5 million and $18 million the following year, Ricca said.

    “Sitting here, I’m looking at a $2 million increase over two years, and it’s just sort of mind-boggling,” Mayor John Hollar said at that Jan. 24 meeting. “It’s clearly not sustainable.”

    School board members say the increases are needed so teachers don’t switch to jobs in neighboring districts and so Montpelier teachers are in the middle of the pack salary-wise compared with other districts in central Vermont.

    School board member Ken Jones said Thursday that given declining enrollment, the response of decreasing staffing levels can take time.

    “It’s just hard to fathom in an area where median income in Vermont is about where it was in 2007,” Hollar said. “We’re lower actually than we were six years ago in household income, and yet we’re proposing an increase in teacher salaries of 10 percent over the next three years.”

    “That follows increases (for) every one of those last six years,” said Hollar, who not long ago was chairman of the school board. “We haven’t had any years in which they’ve been held steady. It’s just hard to reconcile.”

    The teachers union contract, approved in October, has a 4 percent overall increase that went into effect for the beginning of this school year, and will have increases of 3 percent for the upcoming two academic years. A second bargaining unit, the Montpelier Educational Support Staff Association, negotiated a similar agreement for the same three years.

    The teachers’ bargaining unit, the Montpelier Education Association, covers about 120 staff, which includes nurses and coaches. Fiscal years 2011 and 2012 covered two one-year contracts for the group, each with 1.5 percent increases.

    A third bargaining unit covering 13 staffers for facilities, administrative support staff and technology support specialists is still negotiating a three-year contract that would start next fall.

    School board member Charlie Phillips, who was also an English teacher and a high school principal in the district, suggested at Wednesday night’s board meeting that the district start to highlight its strengths. He proposed the district re-explore moving fifth-graders to Main Street Middle School from Union Elementary School, where a growing student population makes space limited.

    As part of the one-year budget look ahead, school officials also suggested several ideas, such as providing opportunities for high school students beyond interactions with teachers and using creative problem-solving, as the district did with boys and girls ice hockey teams in the past, merging teams with neighboring districts.

    Phillips also said the district could pursue a new negotiating process that would rely more on identifying mutual goals rather than a give-and-take approach, where sides can tend to make extreme offers.

    Due to a two-vote provision in state law, the first line of the school budget will be for $16,597,784. The second line, $389,132, will cover funding for the Community Connections extracurricular program, an elementary school social worker, an office support staffer primarily for the elementary school and a half-time drug and alcohol Student Assistance Program councilor, among other items. The SAP program currently has a full-time staffer.

    A $2.3 million plan for infrastructure improvements the board has deemed essential will also be on the ballot. Major costs include addressing leaky roofs, covering a district heating project at Union Elementary School and repairing bathrooms.

    The spending would mean an increase of about $260 in the tax bill for a $200,000 property due to a rate increase of 13 cents per $100 of assessed property value, or 9.92 percent.

    A public informational session on the budget will take place at 7 p.m. Feb. 19 at the high school library. Jean Olson organized the meeting, which she has dubbed a “pre-town meeting,” where City Manager Bill Fraser, Hollar, Jones and school board Chairwoman Sue Aldrich are expected to attend. Olson said there’s a real gap between the budget process between January and the March vote.

    “I find it tough to keep up on the various questions and challenges our city and school face,” Olson said, adding the meeting would likely last two hours, include a presentation and allow citizens to ask questions and open the discussion.

    While voters can’t change this year’s ballot, Olson suggested they could affect difficult budgets in coming years.

    Also at Wednesday’s school board meeting, the district presented a preliminary look at a formal rental fee schedule for school district spaces like classrooms, gymnasiums and the library.

    The district’s facilities director, Thom Wood, said certain groups have grown accustomed to obtaining waivers and that several feel they’re entitled to use the space for free, even though there are electric, custodial and other costs of having the building open. Building administrators will still have discretion for waivers.

    The fees have been in place but not implemented. The rates tentatively proposed vary based on the type of group and day of the week. Some time periods, such as after school during the week, have no charges already.

    Besides educational and civic groups, there are different rate structures in the draft proposal for nonprofits within Montpelier, nonprofits outside the city and for-profit groups.

    Also during the meeting, the district learned an audit had no findings and no recommendations. The audit marks the 21st year the district has not had any findings, meaning the district spends its money the way it said it would, said Ricca.

    Ricca also noted during the meeting that high school student Ben Field is pursuing the district’s first internship with a superintendent. Field, who will be meeting with Ricca, also has plans to follow education committees in the Legislature.

    david.taube @timesargus.com

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