Saturday February 2, 2013

In these difficult financial times, it may seem that the current SVSU budget is high. It does, after all, represent an increase of 20 percent over last year’s budget, a number that far outstrips inflation. You may be asking yourself, how can this possibly happen?

It can help the discussion of the budget if we understand where the increase comes from. As everyone who has juggled a household budget knows, the cost of everything, from fuel oil to keep the schools warm, to electricity to keep them lit, to insurance to keep them protected, to the price of paper and white-board markers, has done nothing but gone up. But there’s more to it than that. Special education costs in all of the area schools have also risen.

Indeed, those costs have risen dramatically. This is due largely to increased need for special education services, and in part because of changes to programs. We are mandated to provide special education services for those students who qualify up to the age of 22. Another big part of the SVSU budget increase is because of the decrease in grant funds that helped provide staff for these programs and programs that increase attendance and in turn our students’ academic level. We, the tax-paying public, will now be supporting more costs for these specialized programs if they are to continue here and avoid sending students to other specialized schools at an even higher cost.

All of us in the school system take it as a given that the education and welfare of our children is of paramount importance. It seems trite to say that the children are our future, but that makes it no less true. Shortchanging their education today makes their futures less bright, and makes our futures more expensive as we try to provide them with the knowledge and skills after graduation that they should have learned while still in school. That doesn’t help those future adults, nor does it help our local economy to have a poorly prepared workforce.

Can we find cuts and cost-savings in the budgets to offset the increases? The voters and taxpayers of the member supervisory union towns can rest assured that we would do so if we could. At every level of our system, school boards, administrators, teachers and the SVSU staff have worked long and hard to keep costs down, trim fat, and find savings. Expenditures have been cut as far as we can go without adversely impacting the quality of education that each of our children receives. Over the past three years we have trimmed costs in each department. Ultimately, the SVSU budget was put together to preserve our school quality. But in order to do that, there is an increase to the bottom line.

With special education services the costs are borne by the SVSU district, then assessed to the member or local districts and the reimbursement comes back to the local districts as revenue, so it adds what seems like even more because the revenue that offsets special costs (a 50 percent reimbursement) appear at the local level.

In these difficult financial times, the voters in the SVSU member districts have a chance to decide where all of our limited resources will do the most good. If we are committed to providing our children with the best educational opportunities, we need to support this year’s school budgets. If we are determined to foster economic growth and development in the Bennington area, we need to keep our schools competitive.

If we want our community to be someplace our children can return to and raise our grandchildren, we need to make sure our children of today have every advantage we can give them. And so I urge voters to support this year’s proposed school budgets. The foundation of all our futures rests upon a strong school system.

Attend meetings, ask questions and review the annual reports which will be online at www.svsu.org and at the supervisory union’s central office on South Stream Road after Feb. 20.

Sean-Marie Oller, a resident of Bennington, is chairwoman of the SVSU.