Windham Southeast superintendent starts with extraordinary challenge

Kelly Shifflette, a fourth-grade teacher at Green Street School in Brattleboro, talks with Andrew Skarzynski, superintendent for the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, at her classroom on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020.

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BRATTLEBORO — Voters in the Windham Southeast School District will consider a $52,103,190 budget proposed for fiscal year 2021.

Frank Rucker, Windham Southeast Supervisory Union business administrator, called the overall increase in proposed spending “modest” during the School Board meeting held remotely Jan. 19 in which the budget was unanimously approved.

The budget on the March 2 ballot in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney represents a spending increase of $931,890 over the prior fiscal year. Board Chairman David Schoales thanked administrators for their “hard work in keeping it at the 1.8 percent increase especially because we don’t know what’s coming.”

Cost drivers include a $695,440 increase in salary and wages as a result of negotiated agreements, an additional $424,000 to support capital improvements, a $244,705 increase for special education services paid to the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, and a 10 percent rate increase for health insurance estimated to run about $165,000.

“None of these are really unusual,” Rucker said.

Major cost reductions include $215,000 less in costs paid for outside education placements, a $146,330 decrease for a workers compensation insurance premium and a $74,430 decrease related to bond debt interest.

Schoales told the Reformer the unified tax rate for the district is down by 1.5 cents, which is lower than it was two years ago when the district first merged. Each town's rate is adjusted by a state formula known as the common level of appraisal, which involves factoring in recent house sales in a community with the goal of ensuring Vermonters pay a comparable amount of education taxes on properties of equal values.

Rates are set to rise by about 1.7 percent in Brattleboro, 1.4 percent in Dummerston, 0.5 percent in Guilford and 0.5 percent in Putney. They have been updated since originally presented to the board when the budget was approved. 

An income sensitivity program provides credits on school tax bills based on household income and house values.

Principals spoke about wanting to preserve and improve programs at their schools.

“Given the tumult of this year, I think it’s fair to say our primary objective is to return to stability or some stability,” said Herve Pelletier, principal at Putney Central School. “We are looking to provide the same services in FY22 that we have this year, assuming that everyone’s going to be back in the house come September. We certainly hope that’s the case.”

Oak Grove School Principal Mary Kaufmann said that while no major changes are proposed, staff want to build on the school’s support systems.

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“I think we’ll have a successful year,” she said. “That’s the plan.”

Green Street School Principal Mark Speno described wanting to maintain the programs and initiatives that have been developed over the last six years.

Guilford Central School Principal John Gagnon said the pandemic provided an opportunity to expand his school’s outdoor learning programming, which he believes brought about a dramatic decrease in referrals for disciplinary action and behavioral issues.

Voters also will be electing board members for three-year terms. The incumbents — Timothy Maciel of Brattleboro, David Schoales of Brattleboro, Kelly Young of Guilford and Anne Beekman of Putney — face no challengers.

The board unanimously approved a motion to authorize Rucker to continue working with Stevens & Associates of Brattleboro toward a bidding process for an addition at Academy School. Planning for a partition for special education classes has been underway for about two years now.

Stevens & Associates held workshops focused on energy efficiency and how to best contribute to the learning environment. Corey Frehsee, civil engineer and principal of Stevens & Associate, said the group wanted to move to final design phase after completing a feasibility study.

Academy School Principal Kelly Dias described current spaces serving the “neediest learners” not being conducive to their needs. 

“We’ve been talking about this for a while and the need has been clearly articulated,” board member Shaun Murphy said. “It seems like it would be the really prudent thing to go ahead with that commitment — whatever it is — to make sure the process is continuing so if there is a possibility of construction, it can happen at the end of this school year so we can we take advantage of the good weather for building the project.”

Frehsee said consulting fees include design, permitting, bidding and his group having a presence on site through construction until a certificate of occupancy comes. Rucker called the approximately $200,000 contract “reasonable.”

Construction is anticipated to cost about $1.8 million. 

This article was updated Friday, Jan. 29, at 10 a.m. to reflect updated budget figures as a result of changes in factors determined by the state.