Windham Southeast board backs budget boost for equity

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BRATTLEBORO — The Windham Southeast School District board backs an amendment to add $100,000 to the merged district's inaugural budget in order to expand diversity, equity and social justice programming.

On Tuesday, the board voted 5-2 to support the amendment. Board member David Schoales made the motion and serves on the Brattleboro Town School Board, where the discussion originated when board members considered what to do with reserve funds as its district merges with others in Dummerston, Guilford and Putney.

"We had determined as a board that our understanding was that we could not use our general reserve fund without the approval of voters," said Robin Morgan, Brattleboro Town School Board member. "That's why we would just be making an amendment to the budget rather than allocating our own general reserve fund."

Her board voted in support of a motion to be made from the floor at the annual meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Brattleboro Union High School. If the amendment is approved, the total budget will add up to $50,272,289 and increase educational tax rates by an additional approximately 0.3 cents. Rates without the amendment were anticipated to be $1.642 for every $100 of property in Brattleboro, $1.643 in Dummerston, $1.689 in Guilford and $1.709 in Putney.

Brattleboro Town School's plan to use $330,000 from its reserve to help reduce taxes is included in the new district's proposed budget, Morgan said, but the district still has more than $842,000 in its reserves. She said her board dropped the idea of allocating the funds since it had not been approved with its budget at annual Representative Town Meeting in March and it would be difficult to get a quorum of Town Meeting members together for a meeting before Tuesday's vote.

If voters approve the amendment "then it's an operating expense ... it goes back to the board's discretion," said Frank Rucker, business administrator for the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union. "The electorate can't direct the board but certainly if there's discussion and approval then the board's well informed."

The programming is not only for children who have been "historically marginalized," said Mikaela Simms, diversity coordinator for the supervisory union.

"It's for everyone and it's very important," she said. "Statements go a long way ... Follow the money and that's what tells you what's important."

WSESD board member Shaun Murphy voted against supporting the amendment, saying it would be more appropriate to have the funding in a budget.

"It's kind of unusual for a board that's presenting a budget to raise the budget at the same meeting they're voting on the budget," he said Sunday, "but it's such a feel-good thing. It's something that needs to be done."

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Expanding the programming, Schoales said at the meeting, was "something we've been trying to do for a really long time."

"But we just weren't seeing the progress that we needed to see," he said, noting the growing percentage of children of color in local schools. "It's something that has to change. It's a disservice to those kids, to present them a world where they can't be teachers because only white people are teachers. And that's just one part of the whole issue. This is something that the community strongly supports and many times supports."

With a new position created in the supervisory union's Office of Diversity, Equity and Social Justice, Simms said, "This is a great time to make a push."

"Money is always helpful," she said. "It's a useful tool. And that's all it is — it's a tool."

Simms said the programming is to ensure "our environment is as welcoming to all kids. And right now, it just isn't."

Jodi Normandeau of Dummerston said she would love to see more people of color in the community. She questioned adding the figure to the budget at this point.

"You guys are right, this isn't the right way to do it but it's because it's so important that waiting a year to put money behind these initiatives is a really long time in the life of a child," said Morgan.

Jaime Contois of Putney said voters are energized to come to Wednesday's meeting to support the extra funding.

"I support supporting a motion from the floor to fund this office and to make steps now because people care now and they're too damn confused now to stop us now," added Anne Beekman, vice chairwoman of the WSESD board.

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


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