MONTPELIER — School officials reviewed budgeting and operations, a sick days benefit and salary negotiations during a somewhat tense discussion with residents this week.
A “pre-town meeting” organized by resident Jean Olson drew more than 30 people this week at the high school library, where city and school officials presented their budget proposals that residents will vote on March 5 and answered questions.
The city budget calls for increasing current spending by 2.7 percent, for a $11.4 million general fund budget. If all the municipal ballot items pass, the city portion of the tax rate will increase by 2 cents per $100 of assessed property value, a 2.1 percent increase from the current rate.
The school budget calls for nearly a 7.5 percent increase in spending, to about $17.4 million. That’s projected to increase the school tax rate by about 13 cents for residents, or nearly 10 percent.
“I’m not happy at all with the 8 percent-plus increase in the school budget,” said school board member Lowell VanDerlip. “It’s certainly something that’s not sustainable.”
But he pointed to previous school budget increases, which were 1.3 percent for the 2009-10 school year, 1.5 percent for 2011-12 and 5.3 percent for the current school year. Spending dropped 0.5 percent for the 2010-11 school year. “If you look at the track record, it’s a pretty good one,” he said.
Some residents questioned how the school board arrived at salary increases for district employees, which were approved in October. Resident Kathy Callaghan suggested it seemed like the district approved salary increases, then went to the voters to pick up the tab.
But school board member Ken Jones asked how the district could otherwise handle the timing of union negotiations and budget votes.
School board President Sue Aldrich said city teacher salaries are in the middle of the pack in central Vermont. Jones also said the board was told that if the district had used arbitration, the salary increases might have been higher.
The latest teachers union contract includes a 4 percent overall increase that went into effect for the beginning of this school year, and 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.
City Council member Thierry Guerlain, who was part of a panel and then joined the audience for the school portion of the informational session, asked how many sick days teachers can use each year.
Aldrich said she wasn’t sure but believed it was around 50 days, a figure that drew scoffs and surprise from several members of the audience. Aldrich added that the number of sick days actually used was comparable to other school districts that don’t have as generous a benefit in that area.
A staffer in the district’s business office declined to provide the information, and the district’s superintendent did not respond to an email Wednesday seeking the actual figures. An automatic reply said he is out of the office this week. The district’s business manager, Cynthia Rossi, did not return a phone message before press time Thursday.
Some residents also questioned the implications and reasoning regarding a firefighter-led ballot item. The question, Article 15, seeks to add $54,669 to the Fire Department budget “for the sole purpose of retaining” a full-time firefighter/emergency medical technician position that is due to become vacant because of a retirement.
Despite the petition drive that put the item on the ballot, the council in January reduced the overall budget proposal by approximately the amount being sought by petition. The move was to show that even if the petitioned request passes, the city has the ability not to fund the position.
Resident Dave Bellini said that whether the city could override the outcome of that vote seems like a legal issue. He said he couldn’t understand how the City Council could override the petition.
“I don’t have a dog in this fight except I support the Fire Department,” Bellini said. “I’d just like a legal ruling.”
City Manager William Fraser suggested a legal ruling likely wouldn’t occur unless the matter goes to court.
Mayor John Hollar said the city looked at the budget as a whole, which was something he campaigned on. “We have the highest median tax rates in the state, and we’re not going to be able to change that by making easy decisions,” he said.
He said the city has a lot of hard choices and that the council is going to get a lot of pushback in trying to address the issue.
As part of Wednesday’s City Council meeting at the high school library, the city and school district will also have a joint public hearing regarding three bond requests on the March 5 ballot.
There is one $2.3 million bond for school repairs and projects, including hooking up Union Elementary School to the district heat project.
The city has two bond requests — one for improvements to sidewalks, storm drains and retaining walls, and the other for replacement of a sewer line.
Several residents asked about closing the middle school or consolidating operations with U-32. One of the four District 3 City Council candidates, Jessica Edgerly Walsh, asked whether administrative functions had been considered for merger with U-32.
School officials said previous studies showed that although closing the middle school would bring some savings, the transition costs would be too much. Board members also said that without the full support of U-32’s member towns, governance issues prevent certain consolidation measures.
School board members also offered some insight on future budgets. Jones said negotiated salary increases will mean budget increases in upcoming years.
However, Aldrich offered a positive outlook: She said the amount of tuition is increasing from students outside the district who attend the city school system. Early acceptance letters from students to universities like Yale and Swarthmore have allowed the district to showcase its reputation, according to her.
School board member Charlie Phillips said that if state education law allowed state funding to “follow the student” when individuals enroll in neighboring districts, Montpelier would stand to gain money. Gov. Peter Shumlin indicated in his January address to the Legislature that he wants the state to look into such a system.
“I think because we have an exceptional product,” Phillips said, “we would benefit from that kind of change.”
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