Now hear this

CCS Budget 2CCS budget hearings offer taxpayers a chance to weigh in

By Geeda Searfoorce | The Charlotte News

As the days grow shorter, the lights remain on at the Charlotte Central School Library on selected evenings to welcome the Charlotte Board of School Directors, the administration and the public to discuss the proposed budget for fiscal year 2017. The first of these budget hearings, held on Dec. 1, featured a community forum, a budget work session and an Act 46 community forum, effectively offering a view of the landscape of decisions facing the people of Charlotte in the coming months. The second meeting, held on December 15, offered a more detailed look at proposed cuts and specific line items, as Principal Barbara Anne Komons-Montroll presented a document on which she and her team had been working.

Among the faces in the crowd of concerned, dedicated and stalwart community members were a number of teachers and staff, interested in getting a first listen about how their day-to-day work may be affected in the wake of budget decisions. Opening the community forum on Dec. 1, school board chair Mark McDermott invited questions from the audience, which he addressed along with a number of the board members and Bob Mason, Chittenden South Supervisory Union’s chief operations officer.

In short order, Charlotte’s tremendous challenge was re-revealed. Facing declining enrollment and the impending shift in the allowable growth percentage, how do we build a roughly $8 million budget—essentially flat with this year’s $7.5 million budget, when rising costs, primarily healthcare related, are taken into account—while ensuring that student education is paramount? One community member asked the question on every taxpayer’s mind. “If enrollment is going down,” she asked, “why are we spending more? Why is Charlotte having such challenges?”

That answer has broader implications for our town and the economy at large, though big pictures are tricky to keep an eye on when spreadsheets demand smaller numbers. Projections for the next 15 years estimate that CCS enrollment will hover at about 350-450 students, while the Shelburne and Hinesburg K-8 schools are growing.

McDermott summed up the goal on which board members and administration are focused by saying, “Schools need to be right-sized.” (See page 2 for his article about the implications of Act 46 on the budget and the allowable growth percentage.) But as Mason reminded everyone, “These are very difficult times. They require out-of-the-box thinking.”

That out-of-the-box approach is why these hearings are beginning now, in advance of decision time. The budget for the current school year, though it’s just over a month in, is estimated to be $58,000 under projections. AJ Haigney, CCS’s budget buddy offered his view that, “I’m of a mind that we should use the fund balance to extinguish debt.”

Planning ahead to maintain a surplus was a point of much of the first evening discussion’s focus. Mason pointed out that the “surplus is Charlotte’s money” and that “the advantage to a fund balance in a small school system is to cover unexpected costs,” like a mold problem being uncovered—as it was not long ago in Milton—or fixing a boiler leak like the one that prompted a CCS evacuation just last week (See page 1 for more).

One community member asked about the existence of a surplus at all. “It’s great that we have it, but does it mean that our budget is too padded?” Lynne Jaunich, current CVU board member and former CCS board member, pointed out that, “In the past there was no padding and it was miserable.” The Chittenden South Supervisory Union has low reserves for schools to tap into. Individual schools must cover their risks, hence the necessity of the surplus. Jaunich reminded the crowd, “Going to the voters midway through the year is tough.”

During the last several budget cycles, the board has asked the administration to come up with proposals, which were presented without prior discussion. This revision of business-as-usual has created an environment open to debate, thereby offering a chance for more “out of the box” thinking and ensuring that the opportunity for more inclusiveness on the part of the community at large might prevent the negative budget vote that happened last year.

When Komons-Montroll began to lay out the items that she and her team had been reviewing while developing a proposal, she stressed that “maintaining and/or improving student programs and education quality standards” is the guiding principle of all forthcoming decisions. This reminder laid the groundwork for board, staff, administration and public consideration of some potentially contentious issues on the road to “right sizing.”

“We’re examining what an FTE [full-time equivalent] would mean for teachers, how many minutes they spend with students…that may mean distributing responsibilities,” Komons-Montroll said, “while maintaining or improving class sizes.” She went on to address a possible line item reduction in staffing, stressing that there were scenarios in which a classroom teacher would be reassigned and not eliminated.

Another $60,000 was targeted for possible reduction in the line item labeled “Other,” which includes travel, miscellaneous and computer equipment. Additional items up for discussion include assistant coaches, maintenance operations, kitchen staff, office staff—particularly the position of receptionist—summer school, literacy intervention and technology integration.

During the Dec. 15 meeting, Komons-Montroll’s report offered a detailed look at proposed eliminations—like the positions of receptionist and assistant cross country coach—and reductions like in percentage of FTE positions such as behavior systems and response coordinator, and health, Spanish, art, and physical education teachers. Where possible, any necessary unmet needs could be absorbed by other staff. In this proposed model, one FTE elementary teacher would be reassigned to other tasks, not eliminated.

After a moment during which the board and attendees universally praised Komons-Montroll for her work in developing the proposed cuts, McDermott had the unwelcome task of informing the assembled that the new numbers reveal that there is a further need to reduce an additional $180,000. After adjustments for falling oil prices, that number drops to $160,000 but is still a significant amount.

Some board members expressed their frustration at the degree to which Charlotte has to adjust its budget. Kristin Wright said that, “It is absolutely crazy that we are being asked to cut this much from a school this size,” and called on representative Mike Yantachka to explain how we are supposed to make these decisions when our budgets are due before the legislature meets again. Yantachka reported hearing similar outcries from other Vermont communities and assured those assembled that he would take these concerns up in the coming weeks.

Others board members attempted to identify other places in the budget to trim. Clyde Baldwin zeroed in on what he perceived to be a natural solution to the problem at hand. “I don’t know why we’re not looking at eliminating that [elementary] teaching position,” he said.

Before the board went into executive session, McDermott closed the meeting by encouraging the public to attend these hearings and upcoming forums about Act 46. “Information comes in throughout the budget season,” he said. “As people come to these meetings, the questions keep getting better, which helps us think through all of the issues.” The public will be able to just that at the next meeting on January 5 at 6 p.m.