More revisions for Bristol Elementary School budget

BRISTOL — A proposed spending plan for Bristol Elementary School’s 2006-2007 school year entered its third round of revision at a heated school board meeting on Monday.
The budget of $4,211,798 proposed on Town Meeting Day was voted down, 452-447. Many believed this was due to concerns over cuts some considered unnecessary, so the board increased the spending number slightly to $4,292,250. Bristol voters rejected this revised budget proposal, 193-183, on May 9.
So at Monday’s meeting, the Bristol school board cut $83,700 from the May 9 budget, eventually arriving at a sum of $4,208,820. This newly revised budget will be put up for a vote on Tuesday, June 20. Though some details are not yet set, the vote will probably take place between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. at Holley Hall.
This figure is about 1 percent greater than the current year’s budget of $4,169,150.
All the changes that were made between the budget rejected on March 7 and the one voted on on May 9 were preserved. The largest of those changes was restoring a classroom teacher to prevent class sizes from growing, and tuition to send a special needs student to Robinson Elementary to take part in the Starksboro school’s Toward Affective Development (TAD) Program.
To come up with an acceptable budget on the third try, cuts had to be found in other areas. So the board agreed to cut the $6,500 for new tractor and $6,000 for new cafeteria tables from earlier proposals. The budget for spending on electricity was reduced by $5,000, personnel by $25,000, speech-language pathologist (SLP) services by $24,000, student services by $2,000, technology by $3,000, the principals’ office by $1,700, fiscal services by $2,500 and school supplies by $8,000.
Some of those cuts mean shorter hours for personnel. The cut to SLP services, for example, was made by reducing 1.4 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees to 1.0. This cut was made easier than it might have been by the fact that one of the two speech-language pathologists, who now work part-time, will be taking a leave of absence.
The effects of other cuts will be more difficult to determine. The total budget for “supplies and teaching materials” in the May 9 budget was $143,783. The $8,000 cut there will probably be accomplished by making slight cuts across the board rather than by eliminating one or two categories entirely.
“It just means you have to tighten your belt,” said Co-principal Jill Mackler.
Most of the cuts represent places where the school will have to do without, but not all of them. The $12,500 to replace the old tractor and the old cafeteria tables will still be spent, but they will be bought using the surplus for the current year.
Some people at Monday’s meeting expressed surprise at the cuts that were proposed. Board member David Knight wondered why they had not been suggested earlier in the budgeting process. Evelyn Howard, superintendent of the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union, explained that for several years the budgets have overestimated costs in certain areas like the electric bill, and some cuts were the result of revising those estimates down.
Estimates made months in advance could never be entirely accurate, but Bristol Elementary School has had a budget surplus for several years in a row, according to Susan Jefferies, coordinator of fiscal services for ANESU.
“Bristol has had a history of some pretty good surpluses,” Jefferies said. “That’s something we’re trying to dig into… to find out where and why.”
Before any numbers were ever discussed, however, problems with the previous budget were hotly debated.
To Knight and some in the audience, it was clear that cuts needed to be made.
But many people felt a lack of communication and turnout were part of why the budget proposals failed. “When I see 376 votes, that’s not a very good representation,” said board member Meg Wendel.
Some voters probably based their decision on beliefs about the process from secondhand sources. One Bristol resident in the audience on Monday night said, “There’s a perception that the administration received a very sizable pay increase.”
The contracts of the two co-principals, Mackler and Anne Driscoll, are renegotiated in March. According to Jefferies, their per diem pay was increased to keep pace with the pay of other staff. “The principals were making less than teachers with comparable experience were making,” Jefferies said. “This (raise) may have been a long time coming.”
But due to the budget concerns, there was very little room for any increases. So the co-principals’ pay per day increased but their number of days decreased. Both principals will be paid for 0.9 FTE instead of the full-time jobs they have been doing. In the end, the salaries for each will increase over the current year by $3,204 to $67,938 in the 2006-2007 school year. Bristol Elementary doesn’t have an assistant principal.
But that’s not what some people believed when they voted on the May 9 budget. One resident had heard that the increase was 9 percent rather than 4.9 percent. Some community members were angered at what they believed was a large increase.
So to deal with incomplete or inaccurate information, the board is making an effort to get the word out and make it easier for the community to get involved.
Though exact steps are not yet decided, one of the possibilities suggested was to send information about the budget home with school children along with the regular newsletter.
The board is also scheduling the vote and the informational meeting with community involvement and awareness in mind.
The informational meeting would normally be scheduled for the night before the budget. However, the board hopes to make it easier to attend by scheduling it for the same night as the usual school board meeting.
Due to regulations controlling when the informational meeting is held, the board has not yet determined how close it must be to the vote itself. But if possible, the meeting is tentatively scheduled for 5 p.m. on Monday, June 12, at Bristol Elementary School, the usual time for the school board meeting.
And though the vote will probably take place on June 20, the board considered the practicality of holding it in the school itself instead of the usual Holley Hall.
Concerns were also voiced about the board’s conduct of executive sessions. They are meant to be confidential parts of a meeting, and can only be used for specific and limited reasons. Board Chairwoman Kim Farnham thought that the information about the principals’ salaries could not have been discussed without breaking that rule of confidentiality.
While the fact of the increase is by law a matter of public record, it is unclear whether or not anything else that took place during that executive session was leaked.
“I’m now feeling a little concerned that if I have to go into executive session for a student, I don’t know that executive session means executive session,” said one teacher in the audience at the May 15 meeting.
Farnham will not be on the board when the new budget is put to a vote. Because she is moving to New Haven, Farnham will be resigning effective June 1.
Her replacement is not yet known. According to Mackler, the new member will be selected by the board from among interested candidates, and they will elect a new chairman.
Farnham could not be reached for comment.

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