Leland & Gray School Board cuts budget, sets third vote
TOWNSHEND -- After two rejections by voters, the newly revised Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School budget contains no funding for kitchen upgrades or a new driver's education car.
There also is reduced funding for physical education/health teachers, and there is less money for professional development, field trips and school board legal fees.
The proposed cuts came as the Leland & Gray School Board set April 29 as the date for a third Australian Ballot vote on the fiscal year 2015 spending plan in the district's five member towns.
While board members restored some proposed cuts after hearing protests at a meeting Tuesday night, officials also said they have no choice but to downsize the budget.
"It's a tough decision to make, but we're going to make it anyway, and we're going to move forward in a positive manner," board Chairwoman Emily Long said.
The regional school's nearly $7 million budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, first failed on a 132-122 vote on Feb. 5. A majority of voters in Jamaica, Newfane and Windham supported the budget, while a majority in Brookline and Townshend rejected it.
Board members were prepared to cut the spending plan at that point, but they subsequently received a petition for reconsideration signed by nearly 200 residents -- legally binding the school board to resubmit the same budget for a second vote.
That vote happened April 2. Amid record turnout, the budget was rejected by the slimmest of margins -- 300 against and 299 in favor.
"It was pretty evenly split," Long said.
Nonetheless, school board members are taking the rejections as a mandate. When the board reconvened Tuesday evening, Long noted that it previously had been more than a decade since the school's budget failed.
"To have two go down, one after another, is a message to us," she said.
Administrators with the school and Windham Central Supervisory Union came prepared, proposing a variety of cuts that resulted in a net reduction of $87,000. The cuts actually totaled more than that, but officials said some fiscal 2015 line items -- including those for school counseling and special education -- actually have increased due to changes in funding and need.
"There were some increases because we know more than we did in December," when the budget was initially proposed, said Frank Rucker, the supervisory union's chief financial officer.
In the wake of the two budget votes, some reductions seemed like a given. For instance, while administrators had made a strong push for $32,500 in food-service upgrades, school board members said they had heard many concerns about that proposal.
The cafeteria and kitchen funding now is gone, and Leland & Gray Principal Dorrine Dorfman expressed concern that a growing need is not being met.
"Hopefully, our free and reduced meals rate will not continue to increase," Dorfman said. "Right now, it's at 48 percent."
Also gone is $25,000 in capital spending on building insulation as well as the first $7,000 payment on a new driver's education vehicle. Purchasing that car will have to wait, Dorfman said.
Administrators also sliced funding for professional development, school board legal expenses and field trips, with officials saying more fundraising will be needed for such trips. All of those cuts were accepted by the School Board.
More controversial were instructional reductions. Administrators had proposed less investment in a co-op teacher position and in physical education/health due to retirements, and they proposed less money for foreign language and math due to lower course enrollments.
French teacher Annie Suquet was upset, saying she had been notified of the potential change less than an hour before the board meeting.
"I deserve a little more information," Suquet told the board, adding that, "I really am outraged about the way things are done ... There's a way of speaking about numbers and making things look horrible for French."
Fellow foreign-language teacher Jeryl Julian-Cissé echoed Suquet in saying enrollment numbers can be misleading. In some cases, she argued, the issue is actually one of scheduling conflicts.
"Our upper-level (language) courses are almost always scheduled against AP English, which is a very popular course," she said.
Twilla Holden, a school board member representing Townshend, said she had heard voter concerns about spending on driver's education and food services. But she heard no support for reducing instructional funding.
"Cutting teachers is going to be a hard sell," Holden said.
There also was concern about a plan to eliminate funding for a three-dimensional printer, with a student representative to the School Board arguing that the device is "an investment that will benefit generations of students to come."
The School Board subsequently voted to restore funding for the printer and other instructional equipment as well as funding for foreign-language and math instruction.
The reduction in the instructional budget for physical education still stands, but Dorfman said any gaps will be filled by existing staff.
The new budget total is $6.94 million, a decrease of more than $56,000 from the fiscal 2015 budget as it had been proposed and rejected. The revised spending plan represents a 1.9 percent increase over the current year's budget; that's down from a 2.8 percent increase as the plan initially had been proposed.
The School Board also set the next Australian Ballot vote on the budget for April 29 in the five member towns. That's a week later than had been discussed, with board members saying they want time to get budget facts out to voters.
Details will be posted on the school's website, www.lelandandgray.org, and officials also discussed sending a mailer to all residents of the district. Also, a public information meeting on the budget has been scheduled for 7 p.m. April 24 in the Leland & Gray library.
Long praised school and supervisory union administrators for putting together a revamped budget within days of the second vote. That haste also is an explanation for the late notification of proposed cuts, she said.
"There has been some really hard work done in a very short time period," Long said. "This didn't get to us until just before our board meeting."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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