BENNINGTON — The Mount Anthony Union School Board approved a FY17 budget on Wednesday, and drew ire from the public regarding proposed changes to the high school's guidance office.
The cost to operate the school district, under the approved budget, will be $27,582,144, which translates to a homestead tax rate of $1.38 per $100 in appraised value, down about 3 cents from last year. This will reflect favorably on the tax rates of MAU member districts, whose budgets themselves are also being finalized this week. The tax rates for MAU and member districts are not added, but are blended based on the percentage of students from a district that attend that district's elementary school(s) versus the MAU.
Board member Dave Durfee also brought up an issue that had been discussed by the MAU Education Committee, namely changes to the structure of the guidance department. The committee, after much discussion, had voted unanimously to recommend that the board create a guidance director position and reduce the number of guidance counselors, with the caveat that the board look into if the guidance counselor having a student caseload would be allowable under the current teacher contract.
"I'm in favor of a director being in charge," said board member Leon Johnson, "Because I think there's a lot of things we need to look at, in terms of guidance, in terms of new technology and data, and thinking outside the box in terms of how to maintain and manage students. I thought that was best handled with a director."
Chairman Tim Holbrook said what form the director would take was still very much open for discussion. He said he would accept a motion from the board to approve the position, with details pending, or that he would understand if the board wanted to wait until more had been finalized.
Board member Fran Kinney said many of the guidance counselors have not been evaluated since 2002, and that having a director in place would make that happen. After some more brief discussion, Nelson Brownell made a motion to approve the committee's recommendation of funding the position, and said the board could approve the job description at a later date, after it has been finalized.
Before the motion could be voted on however, members of the public asked to speak on the issue. Former MAU board chair and Bennington resident Sean-Marie Oller pointed out to board members that they had given no indication on the agenda that action was to be taken on that item. Brownell, who also serves as the chairman of the Pownal Selectboard, responded that it was obvious that the education committee had brought the issue to the board for action, and that the agenda need not specify which actions could take place under every item.
"The public did not know there would be a vote tonight, so it is a little concerning," said Jeannie Jenkins of Bennington, "I think it would be helpful for the public, when you bring up ideas for re-structuring, you bring up, 'What are the alternatives?,' what are you thinking of doing, instead of just changing it. It would be very nice for there to be a full discussion so that the public really does understand what's going on."
Holbrook took issue with a comment Jenkins had made about the board cutting three guidance positions. "You had said we are losing three guidance positions. We're not losing three, that's not in the budget. That's inaccurate, and to say that without looking into it further is a disservice to the school." Jenkins replied that it is "quite out in the public that there will be more than one guidance counselor position removed." Under the current proposal, only one guidance counselor position would be removed, and that would be the person who would be promoted to fill the guidance director position, but that is still open to discussion as the roles of the director and the rest of the staff are finalized.
Holbrook said the vote Wednesday night only authorized the board to move forward, and that, once the idea for the position had been finalized, those details would be made available to the public.
"The education committee is charged by the board," said Durfee, "to hash out certain conversations, rather than involve the full board. So we did that. We can provide more detail if the board needs it, but I don't know if we're obligated to provide it just because the public wants it, to be perfectly honest."
The Mount Anthony Union School Board meets the third Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. in the Mount Anthony Union Middle School library. Full recordings of the meetings are available on Catamount Access Television, and on the station's YouTube page.