"You know, Jill, if we as a community can’t take care of our most vulnerable-the oldest and the youngest-what are we? Shouldn’t our town’s budget reflect those values?"
This was the response I received last week when I cautiously asked one of Brattleboro’s town meeting representatives what he thought about our school board budget. He and I had been present for all of the many hours of discussions last year on that late March Saturday that seemed to never end. We had both witnessed-and participated in-the careful, heartfelt deliberations of our town’s elected representatives. He and I knew that the town school budget came very close to not being passed-and that we had spent an unprecedented nearly five hours discussing it.
I had just finished pointing out to him that we, as a board, were determined to make sure that it was as low as possible-while still maintaining the same level of services to the students. Still, the total budget showed a slight increase, less than one percent, but still an increase.
He cut me off. "Remarkable! Fantastic!" he cried.
Well, yes, I agreed. I, too, had thought that when we got to that point. Getting there in our budget building process had been full of choices, and occasionally bizarre conversations. We talked about musical instrument purchases (how many kids couldn’t afford rentals and didn’t have that enriching experience of learning to play because the schools don’t own enough instruments?). We batted around what to do with Academy’s modular building and its roof (how much do you sink into a building that was purchased used, already at its "life expectancy", and now years past that date?). We dug into after school program busing options (how many kids would not be able to participate if we didn’t have transportation home?). We even had a rather lengthy discussion about keep the schools smelling good, and the upcoming, necessary ventilation work in the bathrooms (turns out that little boys don’t always have the best aim-not a surprising statement to any mother).
But, I persisted with my friend, it turns out that the state of Vermont didn’t think things through several years ago, and now is passing a 5-7 percent increase on to all of us. Combined with a modest increase of around 1 percent from the high school, the Reformer’s recent headline, covering our school board special budget meeting, "Taxes Going Up," is true. Even though we have held our part down, the total burden on the tax payer is going up.
"Jill," he said sternly, "if you all have looked at the budget, and that’s what it takes to educate the kids, that’s what it takes. If we as a community can’t take care of our most vulnerable -- the oldest and the youngest -- what are we? Shouldn’t our town’s budget reflect those values?"
When I look at the budget, I see it as a tax payer: No, no more taxes! Enough already! Over $15 million dollars just in the elementary town school budget, in a town this size? Is that really necessary?
I review it like I look at my own business: Do we really need to spend this year on those items? Does it make sense to delay purchasing new computers? Why do we budget that much for that category when the actual expenditures are $2,000 less the past two years? Why is the cost for that category up this year in comparison to the last? Can we avoid this cost altogether?
I view it through the eyes of a mother: What is in there for the iPad programs that my third-grader talks about constantly? How about the after-school programs, like the lego robotic program and the midi music composition that my son used to come home all excited about? What are we spending on books that deal with the mandated common core requirements -- but still engage my other son in reading until all hours of the night?
I check it through the filter of what I hear out in the community, as a school board member: What’s the balance between enrichment and remedial offerings after school? How much is the continuing education for our teachers, and can we bring the training here and save on the travel line? What does this program cost and what has it shown for improvement -- what’s its results?
I run it through my head with the voices of the town meeting representatives from last year: We’d love to give you a blank check. But we can’t. So what makes sense here?
So at our meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 22, your Brattleboro Town School Board approved a budget of around $15.5 million. This represents an increase of less than a half of a percent: 0.49 percent.
It accomplishes two huge goals. First, it educates our community’s children to the best possible standards that we can, providing enrichment for those who are already excelling and bringing up those who are not; it keeps them safe, in buildings in good shape and repair; and it fulfills all the federally and state mandated requirements. Second, it watches the tax rate and is a thought-out, responsible budget.
"If we as a community can’t take care of our most vulnerable -- the oldest and the youngest -- what are we? Shouldn’t our town’s budget reflect those values?"
Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools-now at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels. She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment, the Brattleboro Town School Board and the Early Education Services policy council.