As schools in Elmore, Morristown and Stowe got ready for a two-week holiday break, the Lamoille South school district unwrapped a budgetary wish list for the next fiscal year.
A previous iteration of the budget-in-progress estimated $32.2 million in expenses, and the needle didn’t move much going into Monday’s school board meeting.
But that could change in future drafts, after Superintendent Tracy Wrend explained that three things need to be addressed before the numbers are finalized.
The first area of need, she said, is “adequate and safe learning spaces” in all schools. That includes developing a long-term facilities plan for all of the seven schools in the district.
“It sounds simple and silly, but it is important that all of our classes have roofs over them that don’t leak,” Wrend said.
Stowe school board member Norm Williams said he and fellow Stoweite Tiffany Donza were part of a lengthy study last year that explored the infrastructure needs of the Stowe School District. The now-defunct Stowe School Board had even come close to asking voters to approve at least $20 million to pay for the fixes, but the State Board of Education quashed that plan by forcing Stowe and the Elmore-Morristown district to merge.
Williams said he “can’t imagine” Morristown’s structural needs would ring in much less than $20 million, adding up to a much larger fix-it list for the merged district.
Board chair David Bickford said what used to be “two different sets of needs” have merged into one, thanks to the merger.
“Not to bring up a sore point, but we are here because of a forced marriage,” Bickford said.
Bickford said he’d like to see the state chip in, since it was the state’s decision, not local residents’ — indeed, Stowe and Elmore-Morristown had resisted merging from the get-go, and even fought the state’s decision in court.
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, along with the other elected officials representing the Lamoille South towns, fought the forced merger in the Legislature. Scheuermann has drafted a proposal that would require the state to contribute money for any future construction necessitated by being a merged district.
“The state needs to have skin in the game,” she told the newspaper.
Wrend said the second area of need is adequate staffing across the board. This year’s budget presentation includes, for the first time, a breakdown of the number of “full-time equivalent” employees across the district.
There are 313 employees, or at least the full-time equivalent thereof, among the seven schools and central office. Of those, nearly 19 are funded with grants.
None of those 19 staff members are in Stowe or Elmore schools, since the grant funding is based on income levels in the towns, and those two towns have fewer students who receive free or reduced-price lunches than Morristown.
Wrend said some schools need more bodies.
Stowe, for instance, needs an extra custodian, she said. Janitorial services are determined by the total number of square feet within the schools, and based on that math, Stowe now has seven but needs eight. Morristown schools have nine custodians for roughly 170,000 square feet of space.
The one-room Elmore School has a person who cleans the school once a week, but Wrend said the school’s sole “rock star” teacher, Annamary Anderson, and the kids also clean the place regularly.
Wrend said Stowe could use a new health teacher for the middle and high school level, and has needed someone for years.
Stowe is also tight on kindergarten sections, she said. Both Stowe and Elmore-Morristown have about 60 kindergartners, but while Morristown has four sections of 15 each — “the perfect size,” Wrend said — Stowe has 3 sections of 20 each.
All the elementary schools need boosts to their math and literacy coaches, and Wrend said they could be shared among the schools as needed.
“When people ask, ‘what is one of the benefits of the merger?’ that’s one of them,” Wrend said. “No school has to worry what school’s budget it came from.”
After-school and summer
The final area of need Wrend emphasized is expanding after-school and summer programs for kids.
For instance, the Friday Program at Stowe is popular, with students taking part of the day off all winter to go skiing or riding at Stowe Mountain Resort and Trapp Family Lodge’s Nordic Center, swimming at The Swimming Hole, bowling at Stowe Bowl, playing tennis at Topnotch, or skating at the Stowe Arena.
Speaking of that last one, Williams and Donza were pleased to report that the school district and the Stowe town government struck a compromise with arena fees, after an impasse over the past several weeks, with the town uneasy giving the ice away for free now that it’s not just Stowe as a standalone school district anymore.
Williams said Stowe agreed to give the schools the same discount it gives to Stowe Youth Hockey for prime ice times while letting the boys’ hockey team keep the 5:30 a.m. ice time that no one else wants. Friday Program would still be free.
“They basically gave us everything we asked for,” Williams said, noting that everything still needs to renegotiated in future years.
Donza added that she and Williams assured the Stowe Select Board that Lamoille South won’t consider upping its rates for use of its facilities this year.
Also at Monday’s meeting:
• The school board agreed to keep its membership in the Winooski Valley School Choice Collaborative. The collaborative allows a certain number of students in a wide geographical area to attend other high schools in that same area — east as far as Danville and Cabot/Twinfield; west as far as Mount Mansfield Union; south as far as Randolph and Royalton; and north just a few miles along Route 15 to Lamoille Union.
Wrend said 26 would-be Peoples Academy students can go elsewhere, while 22 Stowe students can. However, not many do it, and only one Stowe student and four from PA are going elsewhere — and three of those PA students are going to Stowe.
Each high school can take seven students, and those spots typically fill up, since once a freshman starts at a collaborative school, he or she can stay there through graduation.
• The board voted to join a large number of schools exploring whether to file a class-action lawsuit against the manufacturer of Juul vaping devices. Wrend said it won’t cost the district anything other than some research into vaping and tobacco use at the schools, which she said she’d be happy to do.
“It has had real consequences,” she said of the rise in vaping among teens. “You’re dealing with an addiction that is really hard to break when you’re 16 years old.”