Neshobe school board seeking input from community

BRANDON — In what is sure to be an in-depth conversation about priorities, the Neshobe Elementary School Board has planned a community forum to discuss some key budget issues as Town Meeting Day draws near.
Residents are invited to a forum at the Brandon school’s library on Tuesday, Jan. 13, beginning at 5 p.m. It will be followed by the regular board meeting at 6 p.m., when board members will vote on a 2015-2016 spending plan that will go before voters on Town Meeting Day.
That forum follows a community forum that was to be held on Sunday, Jan. 11, from 4-5 p.m., downstairs at Café Provence in downtown Brandon.
Much like the Lothrop School Board in Pittsfield, Neshobe is facing cost-shifting and mandates that are forcing the board to consider either scaling back or cutting key non-mandated programs like Spanish.
“There are mandated programs and non-mandated programs,” said Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Jeanne Collins. “It’s the non-mandated programs that come up year after year (during budget season). Foreign language is not mandated.”
Right now, the Neshobe board is considering a couple of budget options, according to Collins and Principal Judi Pulsifer. Reductions approved at the Dec. 22 board meeting would:
•  Cut the Spanish program altogether, a savings of $81,754 in salary and benefits.
•  Reduce a physical education position by 20 percent, saving $10,775.
•  Reduce an enrichment position by 20 percent, saving $10,775.
•  Remove $10,000 from the SOAR afterschool program sinking fund.
Also, until this year, Neshobe has paid for its preschool program with federal Title I funds, consolidated federal program funds used to increase academic success for kids who live in poverty with a focus on improving literacy and math skills.
Neshobe School has routinely seen about 50 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches under federal poverty guidelines, but Pulsifer said as of this year, that number is up to roughly 60 percent.
But because Vermont has a law that now mandates preschool in schools statewide starting next year, Neshobe can no longer use Title I funds to pay for the preschool program and must shift the entire expense of the program, approximately $121,000, into the general fund budget.
“It’s a significant hit on the budget, so we’re looking to offset that shift,” Collins said.
Factoring in all of those reductions and cost-shifts, and the board has come up with a $5,405,793 spending plan, which represents a 1.58 percent increase over the current budget. It should be noted that the reduction to the SOAR fund will not affect programming, Collins said, nor will a reduction in physical education. Students will still have gym twice a week for 45-minutes, as mandated by the state.
Another scenario, where the Spanish program is added back in at 50 percent, would increase the proposed spending plan by 2.35 percent over the current budget.
If no programming cuts are made, and the preschool teacher position is increase to 80 percent ($22,557), teacher salaries are increased per the contract ($18,000), and assessment changes are made ($85,757), the spending increase would go up to just over 6 percent, or $322,011 over the current budget.
These budgetary maneuvers come despite the fact that Neshobe enrollment has remained steady compared to the statewide trend of decreasing enrollment, at least until last year. Neshobe had 400 students in 2012, 404 students in 2013, then enrollment dropped by 18 students in 2014 to 386. That number is expected to rise again. However, Neshobe is still keeping per pupil costs well below the state average. In fact, per equalized pupil costs are down when using the preliminary $5,405,793 budget figure, from $12,503 in the current fiscal year to $12,273.
But the Spanish program would be completely eliminated, and currently, every child at the Neshobe School takes Spanish.
Under the heading of “Costs not under the board’s control” comes an anticipated $79,000 increase in special education costs for the next fiscal year, and a $1,900 increase in the district’s transportation assessment.
“The cost of doing business is going up and we’re still reducing the cost per pupil,” Collins said.
In an effort to cut costs elsewhere, the Neshobe board has also offered a retirement incentive to eight teachers who are age 55 or over with 15 years or more at the school. The savings would amount to roughly $8,000 per teacher that took the offer. The deadline to accept the incentive was 5 p.m. on Monday, and Collins said there had been no takers as of 1 p.m.
Collins also said she is hearing support for foreign language programs at the elementary level, and that is why hearing from the community on budgetary issues is so important.
“What I’m finding across the supervisory union is a real understanding of the importance of foreign language in schools,” she said. “These are discussions that need to include the community, because the school’s values need to reflect the values of the community.”
Along those lines, Collins is urging Neshobe parents and Brandon taxpayers to attend the Jan. 13 public forum to discuss budget options.
“All of the approved reductions are really open for discussion,” she said. “Your voices need to be heard. Please come to the forums and let the board know, does this budget meet your expectations and reflect the values of the community?”

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