School Board Budget Update

Hi neighbors — As most of you are no doubt aware, the Burlington School Board met on Tuesday night to finalize its proposed budget for the 2009-2010 school year. By a unanimous vote (with one abstention), the Board is recommending a budget in the amount of $49,903,088.

As Board Finance Chair, I strongly take issue with the Free Press’s assertion that this budget is “divorced from reality.” The economic times were a factor in every single discussion and every single vote taken by the Finance Committee and the School Board. All of us are part of the same economy as the rest of Burlingtonians, and we are keenly aware of the challenges people are facing. Nonetheless, we voted to bring forward this budget for a number of important reasons:

First, the Burlington School District’s annual budget is driven by the values expressed by the community (and after hundreds of hours of meetings over the last three years, the Board has a very clear idea of what those values are). Burlington voters have made it clear that they value effective, forward-looking education for their children. They prefer smaller class sizes. By a two-thirds majority, they value neighborhood schools. They support a livable wage for all District employees. They want the types of educational enrichment (foreign language, music, arts, athletics) that contribute to the well-rounded development of all students, and provide innumerable benefits for the community at large.

Second, when economic times are difficult, the schools become a vital source of critical services for the community’s most vulnerable members. That is particularly true given the fact that the current state administration is cutting the funds for a variety of social service programs. This budget enables to the District to continue providing critical health and nutrition services for more than 3,500 children.

Third, and most importantly, the school budget is our most direct and democratic expression of public opinion — the last vestige (in Burlington, at least) of the region’s humble but powerful town meeting tradition. It is the School Board’s job to present a budget to the voters which represents their values and to give them the opportunity to decide for themselves if they wish to support it. It is profoundly presumptuous for the Free Press to tell voters what they can and cannot afford; that is a decision that each of us ultimately must make in the privacy of the voting booth.

There are some specific cost-drivers for the 2009-2010 budget worth mentioning. Last year, the District was hit with unexpected spikes in special ed and heating costs, leaving a deficit of approximately $800,000 which must be retired in the next budget (by law, the District cannot carry a deficit from one year to the next). Labor costs are up more sharply in the coming year as the District honors its commitment to raising low-level salaries to a livable wage. That will flatten out in years to come. Unfunded and inadequately-funded state and federal mandates continue to plague the District, particularly as the federal and state governments freeze or decrease program funds without altering legal requirements. In particular, costs for special education continue to outpace other line items.

The Finance Committee recommended and the Board approved a handful of additions to continue educational and operational improvements in the District. These additions, which total $535,000, include:

* An updated middle school math curriculum to build on the success of the new elementary math curriculum;
* staffing support for the magnet schools at Barnes and Wheeler;
* a data specialist to enable the District to meet new federal and state reporting requirements;
* a science coach to assist in improving science education throughout the District;
* a partial subsidy of the livable wage salary increases for the Food Service program to keep meal costs down;
* a part-time technology teacher at the High School to improve integration of technology into the high school curriculum;
* a 6th grade Spanish teacher to enable the District to bridge the current gap from the highly-successful elementary Spanish program to the middle school language courses;
* $10,000 in planning funds to evaluate what intermediate steps can be taken to improve accessibility at the Edmunds complex.

There is no question that Burlington is different from other school districts in the state. Unlike the rest of the state, our school population is up slightly over the last five years (about 100 students) and is predicted to continue slow but steady growth. There are over 50 languages spoken in the schools, with nearly 600 students learning English as their second (or 3rd or 4th) language. Just under 50% of the children in the schools live at or below the federal poverty line.

As the Free Press pointed out, the proposed budget does represent a 9.1% increase over the previous year. However, the actual local increase is 6.3% — the District will receive the balance from the increased per-pupil grant from the state.

Nonetheless, Burlington continues to have the lowest per-pupil cost in Chittenden County. Moreover, the District’s per-pupil cost last year ($9,777) was nearly $2,000 below the statewide average ($11,599). The averages for the 2009-2010 year are not known yet, obviously, but even if this budget is adopted, Burlington will still be below last year’s statewide average.

The annual school budget is the product of hours of discussion and debate among District officials, the School Board, and members of the public. It represents our best efforts to balance current fiscal concerns against the future need of our city, our state, and our nation for competent, well-educated citizens capable of making their own decisions about the values that are important to them. I am grateful for the support that Burlington voters have demonstrated for the schools in previous years and hope that you will continue to do so.

Both School Commissioner Amy Werbel (awerbel@bsdvt.org) and I are planning to hold “visiting hours” to discuss the budget and answer questions. Please join Amy at Speeder & Earl’s (Pine Street) this Saturday, 1/17, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., and me the following Saturday, 1/24, from 9-11 a.m. as well (same location). And of course, please feel free to e-mail any questions or requests for additional information. A variety of materials about the budget and other District ballot initiatives (which I will post about shortly) are available on the Burlington School District website, http://www.bsdvt.org.

Fred Lane
Ward 5 School Commissioner
12 Catherine Street
flane@bsdvt.org

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