Bristol Elementary parents seek transparency on budget process

BRISTOL — A group of Bristol Elementary School parents have expressed concern about local control of how their education tax dollars are spent, and are urging the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union to be more transparent.
“It seems that currently the budget is developed with a small handful of people with little opportunity for the public to weigh in,” said parent Kristin Siringo. “It’s not entirely clear how much the board is even involved in the process.”
Seventy-nine residents signed an online petition that asked the Bristol Elementary School board to host a community forum with Superintendent David Adams before Town Meeting Day to answer budget questions posed by voters.
The reason for the request, the petition said, is that in the past school board members have deferred budget questions to administrators, even if none were present at the meeting. As a result, residents did not get the answers they sought.
The petition asks for the Bristol Elementary forum to be held before March 3, when the annual meetings for each of the five ANeSU elementary schools are held, so that Adams can be free to attend.
“Because there are five towns in our districts with annual school board meetings being held at the same time, the superintendent is not available to speak to these concerns,” the petition reads.
Siringo said the petitioners initially sent the petition to each of the five Bristol Elementary School board members on Jan. 28, asking them to respond by Jan. 30. When none did, they sent the petition to the ANeSU executive committee, which is made up of representatives from the supervisory union’s other boards.
Siringo said she was frustrated and disappointed that the BES board members did not respond to the petition.
“If you’re purporting to represent voters in the community, and 79 sent a request, it warrants the respect of a response,” she said.
The Independent on Monday reached out to the BES board members — Steve Barsalou, Kelly Laliberte, Elin Melchior, Chris Scrodin and Sheryl Thurber — and asked for the board’s response to the petition, but did not receive a reply by press time.
Siringo said another concern residents have is how much influence they have over their elementary school budgets now that some costs from each school, in areas like special education and technology, have been consolidated into the supervisory union budget.
The executive committee, rather than residents, approves that spending plan. Siringo said the ANeSU and its school boards should consider allowing residents to vote on the district budget directly, like they do the elementary and secondary school budgets.
“That definitely is a conversation worth having, especially as pieces of individual (school) budgets get shifted to the district,” she said.
The Bristol Elementary School board warned the proposed 2015-16 school spending plan in January, and residents will vote on it on Town Meeting Day. It cannot be amended, but residents have the option of voting “no” and then offer their input on a new budget draft.
Siringo said the petitioners are not asking voters to reject the Bristol Elementary or any other school budget, which she said would only spur further cuts.
“That’s likely to result at hacking away at individual school budgets,” Siringo said.
The supervisory union on Tuesday did host an executive committee meeting where information on the budget was offered, but Siringo said that meeting should be held before budgets are warned, so the school boards have the opportunity to incorporate voters’ input and ideas into the spending plans.
“Schools in other districts do that, and it seems to be a pretty reasonable request,” she said.
Theresa Gile, who has two children at Bristol Elementary, said she thought there was not enough time for residents to have a meaningful impact on the budget. Specifically, she said the board did not adequately explain why its proposed budget cuts six instructional staff positions.
She said she hopes that in the future, the school board will host a budget forum well before the budget is warned so the board can craft a budget that addresses the concerns of the community.
“It’s better for the board to have the community involved, than make decisions behind close doors and not explain (them),” Gile said.
Gile said the more opportunities residents have to participate in the budget process, the more likely the board will draft a budget palatable to voters.
“All of us want the best for our kids,” Gile said. “We’re not so sure that’s what’s happened here.”
Superintendent David Adams on Tuesday said that he had not seen the petition, but encouraged voters to call him if they had questions about budgets or the process by which they are created.
“I’m available to meet with citizens anytime,” Adams said.
Adams said whether supervisory union budgets should be voted on directly by residents was a topic that merited discussion, and was one that has historically been a tension point in communities across the state. But Adams noted that because supervisory unions are set up by state law, only the Legislature can change that process.
As for the annual school meetings, usually held on the eve of Town Meeting Day, Adams said while he cannot physically be in more than once place that night, there is at least one administrator at each meeting to answer budget questions.
“We have an administrative team here, including an assistant superintendent and business manager,” Adams said. “The principals are always there, and the boards do prepare for the annual meeting discussion.”
Adams said that budgets are created after a long process that begins in October and involves both administrators and the school board.

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