Savings were realized in part due to a calculation for student enrollment at the Windham Regional Career Center.

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BRATTLEBORO — Before approving a budget to present to voters in March, the Windham Southeast School District Board learned about a chunk of savings found.

Frank Rucker, business administrator for Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, said the proposed fiscal year 2024 spending plan is about $240,000 less than previously projected. Changes since the earlier figure involve the addition of $135,000 to legal fees in case more resources are needed for the investigation into sexual abuse in the district, adjustments to stipends, and a reduction of $161,000 based on enrollment at the Windham Regional Career Center.

Rucker said current enrollment at the career center is “up quite a bit” but when it is modified to a six-semester average, as is required by the Vermont Legislature, the number is lower by about 10 kids. The adjustment to stipends involved discovering a redundancy in employment records for a staff member whose function moved to a different area of the budget.

Approved unanimously by the board Tuesday was an approximately $62,704,000 budget for FY2024, which features an increase of 2.7 percent over the prior year. Previously, Rucker anticipated a 3.2 percent bump. He said an income sensitivity provision caps school property taxes at 2.66 percent of household income for those eligible, a reduction of 6 percent from the prior year.

Rucker also noted the annual meeting on March 21 will be the first time the school district will host an in-person annual meeting since merging Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney districts. An informational meeting is scheduled for March 14.

First draft budget presented for Windham Southeast School District

In December, Rucker described the budget increase being “quite a bit under the inflation rate but we have shifted some of the focus of what we’re spending on.” He pointed out the single largest increase, $1.2 million, covers supportive services from the supervisory union, such as special education, diversity and equity programming, transportation and English as a second language.

The second largest proposed increase, $453,000, is for student support services, which includes counselors and nurses, as well as newer staff members who are social workers, clinicians and behavior interventionists. Proposed in the budget are two new positions for the latter group of support staff.

Rucker said the highest category of proposed spending, $26 million, is for classroom instruction. Salaries and wages are up about $1.1 million in the proposed budget, which includes about 10 new positions.

“But we have had quite a bit of turnover and that’s why we’re not seeing this number look more like an inflation rate, which would be a 5 percent increase,” he said.

On Tuesday, Superintendent Mark Speno called staff turnover “the number one challenge in public education.”

“I think the trend is getting a little positive,” he said.

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At this point last year, he said, the district had 25 teachers announce their retirements and 35 teachers state their intentions to resign. Currently, the number of retirements planned is at 14 and resignations is at 16. In 2021, the total number for both were in the 60s or 70s.

“So it’s a nice trend,” Speno said. “But still that’s a lot of turnover and the pressure of moving forward with new professional development balanced with the continuous backfilling of professional development from previous years is a challenge we’re working on but is certainly on the forefront of our planning.”

Speno spoke of marketing efforts being prepared ahead of job fairs. Staff are producing materials to recruit new employees.

Health insurance costs are budgeted to increase by $775,000. Rucker said the state negotiates for health insurance, not the district.

Included in the budget is a new aviation program at the Windham Regional Career Center at the high school, and funding for professional development and furniture to better accommodate different types of learners as requested by student representatives to the board at the last meeting.

Asked by board member Tim Macel whether the merger is leading to more equities and sharing of resources, Rucker said efforts are made to ensure all schools have access to social workers and other support staff.

“Now that we can collaborate and really benefit from the merger, not only are we sharing resources but the whole process of building the budget is different because it’s looking at schools more side by side and these common initiatives that we have, this common plan,” Dummerston School Principal Julianne Eagan said.

After concerns were raised about equities for uniforms between boys and girls sports, Rucker said the budget includes nearly $1 million on co-curricular programming.

“If there are inequities, I’m sure working with Cassie [Damkoehler, principal at Brattleboro Union High School] and other folks at the high school, those issues could be addressed within those resources so we don’t overlook an inequitable situation,” Rucker said. Staff “can address [them] without rewriting the entire plan.”

Speno added, “That’s not something we want to wait on.”