Twin Valley budget cuts cause concern for students

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WILMINGTON — Cuts in programming caused some voters to sound alarms about Twin Valley's proposed fiscal year 2021 budget.

Seth Boyd, parent and former board member from Whitingham, said it is usually good to see a reduction. but not when it affects the students.

"I would be very concerned with our sustainability if we continued doing this," he said during an informational meeting Tuesday.

The $9,432,346 spending plan represents a $141,160, or 2.56 percent, decrease in overall costs at the middle/high school and a $36,773, or 0.95 percent, decrease at the elementary school level.

Residents from Whitingham and Wilmington will vote on the budget via Australian ballot Tuesday on annual Town Meeting Day.

Former board member Aimee Reed, of Whitingham, told the board she does not think it is "a good idea" to stop offering business classes. She said her son figured out what he wanted to study in college through such programming.

"I understand having to cut the budget to stay a little more affordable but you're cutting some really important programs in the long run," she said. "And I do understand that it was hard to find a teacher. But now that you're cutting it totally out of the budget, you're taking it right off the table."

Board Vice Chairwoman Kathy Larsen said board members were "very frustrated" when they weren't able to fill the position. Their hope is that general business literacy can be covered under family consumer science classes.

That program is budgeted to receive an increase in funding, board Chairwoman Sharon Berry confirmed.

Voters raised concerns that one of two foreign language positions are proposed to be cut. Larsen said the choice had not been easy but the board looked at the figures and it was difficult to justify the funding.

Online courses will be used to help fill in gaps. The hope is to continue to find innovative ways to provide opportunities, Larsen said.

Berry said a library media specialist could reach out to find additional help if a student is experiencing difficulties with online courses.

"We put a lot of thought into this; it was obviously not an easy decision to make," said Anna Roth, who was named principal of the middle/high school during a board meeting earlier Tuesday and had been interim principal at the school since December. "It's really hard to rationalize keeping a teacher who has very few students in their classes and keeping them full time."

Students are "very accustomed" to getting information through digital formats, Roth said. She suggested the possibility of having community members come to the school to converse with students studying a language they are fluent in.

Berry said an industrial arts position is proposed to go part-time after the current teacher, who is retiring, recommended the change.

Transportation costs were said to have dropped given that more efficient fuel is used now. Also, a route was taken off the busing schedule.

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"It didn't affect very many students," said Rebecca Fillion, elementary school principal.

Berry said the board would be actively looking to fill Roth's previous position at the middle/high school, dean of student support systems in the school.

After the informational meeting came the district's annual meeting, where district Moderator Bob Fisher started by reading over articles that will be decided via Australian ballot Tuesday. Fisher and district treasurer Christine Richter are running again for their positions.

The clerk position will be left blank and open for write-in candidates.

The district's approximately $700,000 fund balance or surplus was referenced by attendees when an article to authorize school board members to borrow money in anticipation of taxes was considered and ultimately adopted. That figure "doesn't always translate to cash on hand," said Karen Atwood, Windham Southwest Supervisory Union business manager, adding that about $300,000 already went into an emergency maintenance fund. She cited lower than anticipated special education and transportation costs for the surplus.

Richter encouraged school officials to find a way not to have to borrow. Atwood recalled borrowing a little more than $1 million last year until the state provided funding.

Another article gave school board members authority to deposit surplus funds into a reserve fund for the purpose of maintaining facilities. A leaky roof over the elementary school gym and siding at the middle/high school were two examples of projects that need to be addressed.

"There's a lot of outdoor type of things that need to be done," Atwood said.

Former board member and school principal John Doty of Whitingham encouraged skeptical voters to pass the article as presented, without a dollar figure attached. He said something unexpected happens every year.

"It does give some flexibility," he said. "It's a fairly common tool used in most school districts in the state."

During a time designated for "other business," John Lazelle of Wilmington said his town has the highest homestead tax rate in the state.

"This education system is killing us," he said. "Our test results are terrible compared to even the state average. I don't know what the answer is ... It's killing us. It's killing the valley, not just Wilmington, Whitingham."

Larsen said there is a multi-year improvement plan in place "but there isn't any easy answer." She said the board does not want to lose any more families and it is doing the best it can.

Abbie Corse of Whitingham referred to a pupil weighting study, which recommended changes to Vermont's education funding system after finding inequities for students living in rural areas and students learning English. She called for voters to speak out.

The Vermont Senate Committee on Education will hold a public hearing about the study March 11 from 4 to 6 p.m. in Room 11 of the State House in Montpelier. Testimony can also be provided by calling the House Committee on Judiciary at 802-828-2257 or e-mail testimony@leg.state.vt.us.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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