NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Annual floor meetings for the Bennington School District and Mount Anthony Union School District resulted in more discussion Monday than previous years, driven largely by residents' questions about budget increases.
Bennington resident Jesse Straight said Bennington's median income cannot support a 6-percent budget increase as student population declines.
"It's a little steep"
"It's a little steep for a community that is losing population," he said. "Yet your costs continue to go up."
Straight said the district is spending $500,000 on science, compared to significantly higher spending on other subjects and programs.
"Overall I think science is one of the most important departments, and math," Straight said. "You're spending as much on guidance as you are on mathematics, and that to me, as a taxpayer, is a little troublesome."
He also faulted the budget and annual report for not having more measurable goals, and for exceeding the area's capacity to pay the taxes that support the budget.
"From a guy that's in the corporate world I find your budget unacceptable for this community. I'm not certain where we're going to get this money from, unless you plan on taxing us more. Is that the plan?" Straight said. "How much more do you need to have an effective school system? Because right now you're school system is not effective, and that's why people are leaving Bennington.
Timothy Holbrook, vice chairman of the MAU board and chairman of its Finance Committee, pushed back. "I would disagree with that the schools are not performing," Holbrook said.
He noted positive attendance and graduation rates and test scores on advanced placement exams, as well as continued acceptance of local students at top-tier colleges.
Meanwhile, a lower student population does not mean the district can drop classes or reduce staff because the students are spread over many grades typically have little impact on overall class sizes, Holbrook said.
"It's not that we aren't aware of the fact that our student population is declining and we haven't taken a look at it," he said.
The district also must meet state mandates for special education and contractual obligations, according to Holbrook. He said about 75 percent of the district's budget is tied up in contracted salaries.
The BSD also faced questions about its budget, which is expected to rise 19 percent, or about $2.16 million. Bennington Town Clerk Timothy Corcoran noted that budgeting for a $30,000 interest payment on a bond for an addition to the Bennington Elementary school, which has not yet been approved by voters or presented to voters, was abnormal.
Bennington resident Charlie Gingo asked the board to explain the district's large budget increase.
Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Superintendent Catherine McClure said the area is facing "an increase among students who have very complex disabilities and we need to do improved programming and improved training for our staff."
Regular classroom teachers are also slated for addition training, she said.
The district is also facing a reduction in federal funding for programs that the board has chosen to continue supporting without the federal aid, McClure.
Meanwhile, Chairman Kenneth Swierad said the board is looking at alternatives to an addition to Bennington Elementary, including a discussion with the MAU board about sending fifth-graders in Bennington to the middle school. The board is also inquiring about renting space inside the former Catamount Elementary School, which a previous board closed and sold.
"We're just in the first phase of discussing that," he said.
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