As the holidays approach, children aren’t alone in making wish lists. Colchester School District has begun budget discussions for the 2019-20 school year with the board of trustees, and according to chairman Mike Rogers, it may be time to spend more to make up for years of saving.
“We’ve looked under all the rocks for years, and we’ve held it down, and we haven’t done things that we probably should have educationally wise,” he said.
“I’ve been very proud of this board, and for the last 10 years the school district has been very fiscally sound,” Rogers continued. “[But] you get that old adage that you kind of get what you pay for, and we’ve been buying the low price Chevys for a long, long time.”
According to Rogers, the school board and both superintendent Amy Minor and her predecessor, Larry Waters, have striven to keep budget increases around 3 percent each year. But that doesn’t allow superintendents the flexibility to add teachers or program supports as needed, he said.
“Adding a few teachers, it just puts us over a number that we’re not comfortable with,” Rogers said. “Over the years we haven’t done it, but at some point in order to kind of catch up, we just may have to ask for a little bit more than we’re accustomed to.”
If CSD maintained its baseline budget for FY20, the district would see a 4.29 percent increase, amounting to about $1.7 million more than the current year, according to finance manager George Trieb.
Tax department estimates show Vermont education spending will increase about 3.24 percent and per pupil spending will increase by about 4.1 percent, Trieb said.
“They’re saying the average tax rate could be remaining constant for both the homestead and non-residential taxpayers,” he said. “Last year at this time they were talking about a 10-cent increase, which was huge.”
A burgeoning middle school cohort was discussed at length during the board meeting last Tuesday. The central office has proposed adding one seventh and one eighth grade teacher as part of its “Priority A” list to alleviate overloaded classes.
“After looking at our enrollment numbers and really understanding what we have, it’s really hard,” Minor said. “How can we do more with less? I don’t know that we can do more with less.”
According to Minor, class sizes in Grades 7 and 8 are between 26-28 students, above the state’s student-teacher ratio. In prior years, a total graduating class size was around 150 students, but estimates show classes of 160, 171 and 173 pupils. This puts teachers’ complete student rosters well over the state’s recommended 100, which Minor said is concerning.
Middle school administration has modified spaces, moving a planning room to the mailroom and the mailroom to a supply closet to allow a permanent home for health instruction, principal Michele Coté said. But administrators acknowledged some class sizes will remain over the recommended limits to ensure the district is “right-sized,” Minor said.
Rogers anticipates an English language learner instructor will be another focus in this budget. He said the district has requested an ELL instructor in years past, adding a growing population of foreign language speakers may require the post be filled.
“It’s kind of imperative that we have the resources to accept [English language learners],” Rogers said.
Another budget item he believes will warrant attention are the $80,000 science kits for grades K-5, which top the central office’s “Priority B” list. With the state’s recently mandated science testing, Rogers said it’s important to have proper resources to help kids succeed.
“They’re not real luxury items,” he said.
At the meeting, the administration shared both priority lists. Under Priority A, they requested maintaining current levels of staffing; adding one seventh and one eighth grade teacher; adding two instructional coaches for Grades 6-12; 1.5 full-time equivalent ELL instructors; and $50,000 toward food services.
The Priority B list included $80,000 in science kits for grades K-5; one social worker at Malletts Bay School; one ELL/equity coordinator for the district; and one science, technology education and math, or STEM, teacher at the high school.
In addition, Minor listed some of the larger facilities requests to be discussed at future meetings: a new roof and bleachers at Colchester Middle School, improved parking at CMS/MBS and new boilers at MBS.
These and other budget requests will be discussed in greater detail at the board’s Dec. 18 meeting, she said.
“We cannot answer that question, ‘How can we do more with less?’” Minor said. “We need what we have, and if we’re trying to push our students to achieve more, we at least have to be right where we are right now.”