EAST MONTPELIER — The Washington Central School Board just gave its first-year superintendent a million-dollar math problem along with the license to “be creative” in trying to solve it.
With costs spiking and enrollment dropping in the five-town, six-school district that is anchored by U-32 Middle and High School, Superintendent Meagan Roy and her leadership team are about to work out the challenge.
Confronted with a business as usual budget — one that presumes the pre-K-12 district would continue to operate exactly as it currently is at a time when the cost of everything is climbing and enrollment is headed in the other direction — board members asked Roy to bring back a fresh draft that cuts the projected increase in local education spending from 9.71% to 6%.
In a district where Business Administrator Susanne Gann noted cutting 1% from the projected increase would require $288,000 in budget adjustments, the board’s request would require budget adjustments totaling more than $1 million.
It’s why Chair Flor Diaz-Smith urged board members to give Roy and other school administrators the flexibility to assess the system with one eye on equity and another on the budget’s bottom line.
“I don’t want to tie their hands,” she said of administrators. “I want them to brainstorm.”
Board members didn’t object to that, though some said they are wary of the changes that might be proposed and willing to revisit what School Director Chris McVeigh predicted might be a hard-to-hit 6% target.
McVeigh said consolidating classes within some of the district’s six schools was one thing, but busing students from one elementary school to another would require a different conversation.
School Director Diane Nichols-Fleming sought clarity on the point as members discussed the “be creative” parameter that essentially encouraged Roy and her team to assess whether the district is structured in the best way to serve all its students.
“I want to be clear that we’re not suggesting a consolidation of things because there is a bigger process to that,” she said, immediately second-guessing herself.
“Is that what we’re saying?” she asked.
The answer was “no,” though that doesn’t mean some restructuring won’t be reflected in the second draft of a budget when it is presented to the board next month. It doesn’t mean it will be either, and Roy stressed the board would have the last word with respect to whatever is presented.
That includes all changes, as well as a possible recommendation hitting the 6% target isn’t “tenable” given an assortment of budget pressures.
“It is ultimately the board’s decision what we bring to the community, but we will absolutely let you know whether or not we think we can achieve our ends with the budget that we bring to you,” Roy said. “That’s how I see the ‘creativity,’ as permission to think creatively about it.”
Diaz-Smith echoed that assessment, noting that as the board shifts to “year-round budgeting” and focuses on student outcomes, community engagement and long-term planning, an “intentional” evaluation of the district’s structure could prove useful in the future if some troubling trends persist.
“We … want to know if we’re not structured the way we need to be structured ... in order to best serve our kids,” she said, suggesting the answer to that question may not require any immediate changes, but could inform a soon-to-be-launched strategic planning process.
Diaz-Smith said school administrators should have the board’s blessing to “dream and be leaders.”
The 6% target was one of them; though, School Director Jonathan Goddard suggested was among those who would be willing to consider an even steeper increase than the ones voters in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester are accustomed to seeing.
Goddard wasn’t alone, but for the sake of the exercise, members agreed a 6% increase was worth shooting for. They also agreed hitting it shouldn’t sacrifice well-established systems of support that are in place or ongoing efforts to reduce performance gaps involving special needs students and students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.
Other board-approved budget parameters include avoiding any penalty associated with going over the excess spending threshold and preparing a contingency plan for additional spending reductions if the board determines that spending will result in unfavorable tax implications.
Several key variables needed to determine the tax impact of the school spending plan aren’t yet available.
Though board members spent most of their time talking about the 9.71% increase in local education spending, a healthy chunk of that — well over 1% — stems from a decision not to use any surplus funds as a source of revenue.
The board did use more than $325,000 in surplus funds to cover the cost of two positions — a teacher at East Montpelier Elementary School and, for the second year, the district’s “equity scholar” in residence — and to make the final $145,000 installment on an early retirement plan.
The positions have been absorbed in a draft budget that calls for spending $38.6 million during the fiscal year that starts next July. That reflects a spending increase of more than $2.4 million, or 6.73%. The projected loss of roughly $365,500 in revenue — more than $325,000 associated with the decision not to use surplus funds — push the net increase to 9.71%.
The board didn’t specifically prohibit use of a portion of the soon-to-be-audited fund balance in the budget parameters it set Wednesday night, and it wasn’t clear whether using what recent projections indicated would be an unallocated surplus of $1.27 million is an option as Roy prepares a second draft.
Board members were told the draft budget does reflect the addition of the equivalent of 2.5 full-time positions — one of them a school psychologist — that are being funded by expiring grants.
Pandemic-related federal funding is planned to be used to fund several other positions — a mix of nurses and counselors — during the coming fiscal year, but Roy said, that won’t be the case when the next budget cycle rolls around.
“We are going to have to start conversations about what to do about that,” she said. “We have a year.”
Roy has considerably less time — five weeks — to huddle with her leadership team and craft a second draft of the budget for the board’s consideration at its Dec. 21 meeting.
Class sizes are expected to be part of that conversation, though Roy said it was premature to say what, if anything might be proposed to address the fact that class sizes across the district are consistently lower, in some cases considerably, than the state’s education quality standards.
Board members were told that is a function of steadily declining enrollment. Pre-pandemic there were 1,590 K-12 students enrolled in the district. That number dropped to 1,506 last year and to 1,436 this year.
Roy said conservative estimate suggests that number could drop to 1,381 this time next year. She said that might be a little low, but it probably isn’t far off.