Inaugural merged budget OK'd for Windham Southeast schools

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BRATTLEBORO — A $50,272,289 budget, including funds for expanding equity/diversity programming and installing a synthetic field at Brattleboro Union High School, received approval at Windham Southeast School District's first annual meeting Tuesday.

Brattleboro Town School Board member Robin Morgan made the motion to increase the budget by $100,000. She suggested it be used in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union's Office of Diversity, Equity and Social Justice.

"We hope that funding level will be continued in the WSESU in subsequent years," she said, noting that the Brattleboro Town School and WSESD boards supported the motion.

Morgan looked at the funding as a way to promote creating "a more just and humane world." She questioned what messages are being "implicitly" sent to students who are indigenous, of color or LGBTQ during lessons that do not include people who look or feel like them. She also spoke of hiring teachers who reflected the growing diversity seen in student populations.

Superintendent Lyle Holiday said the supervisory union board voted earlier to increase staffing in the office by 0.5 full-time equivalent. The office will be up to 1.5 FTE positions next year.

"It will not cover all that we're hoping to do with diversity, equity and social justice in the [WSESD]," said Holiday, referring to the merged district that will include schools in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney.

In a handout, WSESU Diversity Coordinator Mikaela Simms proposed the additional funding go toward sending teachers to conferences, evaluating and creating curriculum, buying books and supplies, going on field trips, supporting literacy nights at schools, designing and developing programs, and helping to recruit and retain teachers of color or from other marginalized groups.

Curtiss Reed Jr. of Brattleboro, executive director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, said a workforce capable of attracting people of color is necessary for building the economy.

Erich Kruger of Dummerston said "a certain part of my heart soars" when he visits places with diverse populations.

"It's a vibrant culture, and we in Vermont are far from that," he said. "The world is diverse and ... we need mentors in our community who can raise that picture."

Kruger later made the nonbinding motion to advise the board to use the $100,000 for purposes related to diversity, equity and social justice. It was approved but the board has discretion to decide how the money should be spent. Additions and subtractions from the budget are binding but where to add or take from is up to the board.

Mike Szostak of Guilford, restorative justice coordinator at the high school, said he feels bad for students since the school has very few staff members from marginalized groups. His hope is that some of the funding will be used to bring in more people with diverse backgrounds.

"This issue goes over the whole curriculum," Brattleboro Town School Board member Andy Davis said. "It has to do with our identity. It has to do with who we are as a country and community."

Jodi Normandeau of Dummerston called the amendment "very last minute" and "very costly."

"I think you'd have to be crazy to come out against this proposal," she said, describing herself as a big proponent of diversity and racial equality. "My reason for not being in favor of this amendment is this came after the budget was presented by the board."

Dick DeGray of Brattleboro said the diversity/equity and synthetic field proposals were "not very well vetted."

"I'm not going to vote for this and I'm not going to vote against it," he said, referring to the amended budget. "I'm going to abstain because I'm disappointed in the process. And when we're teaching students about life, there is a process."

Laura Chapman of Putney said she favored "progress over process" and did not want to tell her child it would be another year until the district did what is right.

"Process has its place," George Carvill of Brattleboro said, "but I always go for people over process."

DeGray took special umbrage with the synthetic field set to be installed at Natowich Field behind the high school.

"Where is the money coming from for the new carpet out the back door here?" he said.

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Shaun Murphy, WSESD board member, said the field could be paid for completely out of a capital reserve for the high school although an earlier meeting this month saw voters authorize the BUHS board to borrow up to $750,000 for the project. It is anticipated to cost up to $1.25 million.

Henry Zacchini, a social studies teacher at the high school, said the field would need to be replaced within eight to 10 years. He also raised concerns over whether the field would contain toxic materials and Normandeau urged the board to explore the issue before committing to the project.

"I just think it's not healthy for the students," said Luz Elena Morey of Brattleboro. "It's not healthy for the environment."

Steve Perrin, principal at BUHS, said the synthetic field had been discussed since 2002. He sees it as a way to allow more use of the space. He believes the synthetic field would be ready sooner in the spring than the natural field.

Having added more sports in recent years with more to come, Perrin said, finding field space has become "more and more difficult."

"There's a lot of great research that shows the current synthetic surfaces are safe," he said. "Is anything perfectly safe? No, I would never tell you that. Would I let my children play on synthetic surface? Absolutely."

Since the natural soils could not handle constant use, Brattleboro Select Board member Daniel Quipp said, "maybe we need to listen to that ... because that's what's causing a lot of troubles globally as well."

A low murmur of "nays" could be heard when the budget came up for a vote but it passed without needing a tally. Voters also authorized the creation of a reserve fund for the new district.

"We are in a climate emergency," Morey said. "If we have funds in the treasury and if we have plans to have more funds, there should be a clause to say that these funds should be spent in ways that are ecologically sustainable, that promote ecological wellness."

Voters approved nonbinding motions to require the school board to try to offer child care at all of its meetings and consider environmental, social and racial equity when making purchasing decisions.

Kurt Daims of Brattleboro said the board should discuss "the climate crisis" during all of its regular meetings.

"This is a brand new board," DeGray said. "There are so many things to figure out and get straightened out. I think their time is better spent on what affects our children moving forward in the education process."

"You can't have education on a dead planet," said Sheila Linton of Brattleboro, calling for the board to look at the "intersectionality" of issues affecting students and the community.

WSESD Board Chairwoman Kristina Naylor noted that the new district's inaugural budget involved combining spending plans for Brattleboro elementary schools, Brattleboro Union High School, Dummerston Elementary School, Guilford Central School and Putney Central School.

"Every line item has been scrutinized by the existing districts," she said. They are set to dissolve July 1 under a merger ordered by the State Board of Education as part of Act 46, the Vermont law that encouraged school districts to consolidate with the goal of improving student equity and finding efficiencies.

Educational tax rates are slightly different in each town due to a statewide funding formula that includes looking at how properties sell in a given community versus property valuation assessments. And individual taxpayer rates are adjusted for "income sensitivity," depending on property value and household income.

In Brattleboro, the rate will be $1.646 for every $100 of property, or $1,646 for every $100,000 worth of property. Dummerston's is $1.647. Guilford's is $1.694. And Putney's is $1.713. The additional funds for diversity and equity programming means roughly an extra $4 for every $100,000 of property.

Board members cited contractual obligations and large health increases as the biggest factors in rising costs at each school. When expenditures were combined to compare last fiscal year to those anticipated in the coming one, the new district showed an increase of 3.7 percent. Revenues are expected to drop by 2.6 percent. But spending stayed below a limit set by the state, triggering no tax penalty against the district.

Budget highlights include a new dean of students position at the high school, additional academic support at Brattleboro Area Middle School, new pre-school programming for 4-year-olds at Dummerston Elementary, an additional second grade teacher at Putney Center, and more funding for pre-k programs and academic support at Guilford Central.

Altogether, 217 registered voters in the district out of 14,529 or 1.5 percent showed up to the meeting. Brattleboro had 133 registered voters out of 9,341 or 1.4 percent in attendance. Dummerston had 28 out of 1,613 or 1.7 percent. Guilford had 30 out of 1,730 or 1.7 percent. And Putney had 26 out of or 1.4 percent.

"This has been a complex and painful process," said David Schoales, WSESD board member. "I'm very grateful to see so many citizens with us to watch over our children. Thank you for coming and participating."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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