Community questions Bristol Elementary School cuts

BRISTOL — Scores of Bristol Elementary School parents, teachers and community members attended the school board meeting this past Monday night to voice their concerns on the proposed school budget.
In a marathon meeting that lasted more than three hours, staff and residents raised concerns about layoffs that the proposed fiscal year 2016 budget would likely necessitate, and the process by which the budget is created.
Bristol residents will vote on the proposed $4.9 million spending plan on March 3, Town Meeting Day.
The budget proposal increases spending 2.76 percent over the present fiscal year, but looks for savings by decreasing several line items, such as by eliminating one faculty position and five non-special education support staff jobs.The staff cuts represent $98,398 less in spending for professional staff and $125,634 less for assistants, compared with this year’s budget.
Parents and teachers said they were concerned that the cuts would hurt the quality of education students receive at the school.
ANeSU Superintendent David Adams said that though staff positions would be eliminated, the school would distribute its resources in a way that would maintain a high quality of education for students.
“There’s no reduction in services, just a reduction in staff,” Adams said. “To suggest (students) won’t be served is erroneous.”
Adams said administrators looked at a number of models, and did not suggest staff cuts as a quick fix to combat rising costs in other areas. He noted that last year the supervisory union didn’t fill a kindergarten position that had been funded by the budget because enrollment levels did not merit another teacher.
“We shouldn’t be expending dollars from the budget simply to maintain the status quo,” Adams explained.
Adams defended the budget proposal as a responsible spending plan to put before taxpayers. Facing the realities of declining enrollment and uncertain support from Montpelier, Adams said administrators were left with tough choices.
“We can’t have every preference of school operations that we want, and we have to make decisions about where we’re going to put these investments,” Adams said.
Paul Ginalski, who said he had to take his daughter out of BES because her needs were not being met as a direct result of previous staffing changes, said he has not convinced that the proposed cuts wouldn’t hurt other students.
“I don’t buy it for one moment,” he said.
Even the school board expressed concerns about the effect of the cuts. Board member Chris Scrodin wondered aloud how the school would cope.
“If we eliminate six positions, what is then the plan to fill those duties or assignments?” he said.
Those at the meeting also raised questions about how the budget is created.
Adams explained that budgets are drafted by about eight administrators including himself and school principals. Those budgets are then presented to school boards.
Board vice chair Elin Melchoir said that while the board does not govern the school day-to-day, it has installed and also oversees the administrators at the school. The board, she explained, expects these education professionals to do the heavy lifting in the budget process.
“We have a school board and we have hired people that we trust, and if we don’t trust them, that’s a completely different question,” Melchior said.
Adams cautioned that even with diligent budgeting practices, the supervisory union can’t predict exactly what staffing cuts may be needed. Ideally, Adams said that staff reductions are done via attrition or retirement.
“We don’t know if there will be five (personnel) actions the board has to take,” he said. “There could be three or two.”
Some teachers said they felt left out of the budget process this time around.
Cathy Jipner reminded administrators and the board that the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement with the supervisory union states that administrators must notify the faculty as soon as reductions in force are contemplated.
Board chair Steve Barsalou said because the budget has not yet been approved by voters, the board can’t formally consider staff cuts. Adams said this presented a “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” situation, and said that administrators did informally let staff know that their jobs could be affected, as a courtesy.
Teacher Sarah Scrodin, who has been on the faculty for 15 years, said the way the BES budget was created this year was different than in past years. She said in those years, administrators would work out any budget concerns with teachers, such as staff cuts, before presenting the budget to the school board.
“What didn’t happen for us this time around (was) there was no discussion with the staff before (the board) saw the budget,” Scrodin said.
Principal Sandy Jump said she did meet with the entire faculty recently to address budget questions, and said she regularly interacts with the faculty leadership team, which advocates on behalf of all teachers.
Jump said if the cuts come to fruition they will represent a change at BES, but not one that will hurt the quality of education at the school.
“I don’t want people to leave (here) and have the picture painted that it is dismal,” Jump said. “Teachers are thinking really strategically about what they can do in their classrooms, and how that’s going to work.”
The positioning by BES faculty at the administration is a proxy for the district-wide collective bargaining negotiations that will take place between faculty and the ANeSU this spring. The teachers’ current contract expires in June.
Ginalski encouraged residents upset by the cuts to vote “no” on Town Meeting Day to encourage the board to put forth a budget that spends more. He said that exact situation happened in Bristol in the last decade.
“This town has a history of speaking out for what it needs,” he said.

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