BENNINGTON — Representatives from the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union met with elected leaders on Tuesday morning for a pre-session Legislative Breakfast.
At the meeting, school officials painted a picture of an unusually tense budget season, under the shadow of Act 46, the last legislative session's major education bill. State Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, asked Superintendent James Culkeen how the SVSU was being affected by the spending limits that were included as part of that act, which she says the Legislature will be looking into at the very beginning of the next session.
"We at least have two of our districts that are going to struggle under the spending limits, so relief from that would certainly help," said Culkeen. "Specifically, I'd like to see an exemption for any mandates that are new, such as the three-year-olds that we now have to bring into our system. If any spending towards that did not count against the spending limits, it would be helpful, and I think that's a rational, reasonable request, because it wasn't part of our budget before."
"It's going to be a fascinating session," said state Rep. Tim Corcoran (D-Bennington). "We're going to be looking at Act 46, and it sounds like there's going to need to be some tweaking of the bill that we passed. Not every bill we do up there is perfect, and I think this is a forum for us to hear what the likes and dislikes of that bill are, so we can go back prepared."
He confirmed what Morrissey had said about Act 46 being one of the first topics that will be looked at, noting that the education committee has already been meeting for about a month, discussing possible changes.
"Act 46 has been frustrating for me, as a superintendent," said Culkeen, "In dealing with the SVSU Act 46 Study Committee, I sense a reluctance to change the system from what it currently is."
He said he is concerned by a recent trend in Act 46 discussions, in which more and more communities are considering following the North Bennington model, in which they close their public school, reopen it as an independent school, and then offer full school choice to their residents. "I hope a lot of that is just reaction to, 'We don't like being told what to do,'" he said.
He used the example of Pownal's recent battle with the state over transportation to illustrate the difficulties in navigating the law, while also keeping his districts happy.
"They liked their buses the way they had been running them," he said, "It was their people, their buses, who knew their students and their schools and their neighborhoods, but that's not what the law says, and, unfortunately, the SU gets caught in having to deliver that message, and sometimes I feel that it's a case of killing the messenger."
While Pownal was eventually forced into going along with the state's vision for transportation, kicking and screaming, he noted, this could serve as a snapshot for what is to come with Act 46. "What I'm viewing here is a reluctance to do it until we're forced to do it," he said.
For his part, Culkeen said he saw many opportunities to improve equity within Act 46, including the ability, to, perhaps, move some Bennington students to Woodford to equalize class sizes, or use district-wide funds to pay for improvements to Woodford's school, which they are currently paying for on their own. "Here we are planning maintenance and facilities, and the pool of money is bigger in one community than in somewhere else. That's not equitable," he said.
"Without Act 46, I don't have the ability to shift staff the way I would like to," he said, "I can't say, 'Your population has leveled or declined, so we don't need to replace that position, and we can take the savings from that position and hire a human resources officer, or an outreach counselor, at Bennington Elementary,' I can't do it. It's not Bennington Elementary money, its MAU money. It's not just the frustration in the amount of meetings, it's the frustration of operating out of seven different budgets, seven different pools of money, to educate 3,000 students. In my way of thinking, it should be one, it should be for the common wealth of everyone."
Many legislators also expressed concern about the recently reported 27 percent projected budget increase in the SVSU. While it was noted when that was reported that of the three main drivers of the increase – special education, early childhood education, and transportation – all three have mitigating factors that will limit their effects on the final tax rate, the legislators were still concerned about the percentage increase.
Assistant superintendent Donna Leep pointed out that the budget increase actually represents part of the transition to a more centralized structure, as Act 46 encourages. "It represents our consolidated services," she said, "So as we are doing more of that, and we continue to try to do that, to have consolidation among our districts and share our responsibilities with each other. It looks like the budget is going up, but really, it's a good thing, as those costs are provided equitably to the districts."
Indeed, according to Rick Pembroke, SVSU chief financial officer, the transportation portion of the increase actually represents a net savings of about $200,000, when the district budgets are taken into account.