Stowe voters Tuesday showed their support for their schools during the first meeting of the standalone Stowe School District since the town successfully extricated itself from a four-year forced merger with its neighboring towns.
They also showed their support for the trio charged with ultimately making the decisions for the school district.
In addition to unanimously approving the $15.7 million operating budget, voters decided to double school board members annual compensation from $1,500 to $3,000.
The motion to change the pay came from a former one-term school board member, Emily Rosenbaum, who said when she was on the board, she was juggling those duties with raising three kids and “there’s no way” she could do it for $1,500 a year.
“We lack a diversity of representation, economically and in all sorts of ways, on our elected boards,” Rosenbaum said.
Julia Rogers asked board members how many hours a year they work.
“It's countless hours but we do it because we love it,” said board member Erica Loomis, who was re-elected Tuesday. “We are not here for the compensation. But yeah, I lost count of the hours.”
Marina Meerburg noted adequate compensation for public service is a hot topic in the Vermont Legislature.
“I think it’s an issue that is pertinent to not just the school board, but our whole society,” Meerburg said.
Budget now, fixes later
In a brief rundown of the $15.7 million operating budget, Donza said the budget maintains the school’s — and supports the central office’s — services and the increases in salaries are below the state average. She said the district recently negotiated a three-year employment contract with the teachers’ union and, while some staff has been shifted around and some will be funded for now with federal pandemic relief money, staffing levels have been maintained.
“We spent a lot of time in negotiations, and the three years was a win for everybody,” Donza said.
That level of spending means Stowe will spend just over $20,000 per equalized pupil, more than $3,000 under last year’s statewide average.
“I can remember spending less than $20,000 to go to college,” Richard Bland said.
An equalized pupil does not mean the actual number of students at a school, but rather represents a weighting formula that takes into consideration various socioeconomic factors.
Stowe has 745 equalized students in K-12 — they don’t count pre-kindergarten kids — but superintendent Ryan Heraty, when asked the number of “beating hearts” in the district, said it’s closer to 775 students.
Greg Bauer wondered how the state’s new weighting formula affects Stowe when compared to places like Winooski or Burlington, which has higher levels of low-income and non-white kids. Heraty said the state has put in thresholds so towns “won’t see a shocking increase,” but said the formula “does not affect Stowe as favorably” as other towns.
Bauer also commented that if Stowe’s incoming tuition rate is $17,000 per student, that could leave the door open to, say, a Stowe school employee with a kid in the school effectively getting a $3,000 break. Donza replied that tuition students do not count as equalized pupils.
While voters unanimously approved the budget on a voice vote, some wondered when certain school fixes could be expected. Take the high school parking lot, for example.
Sara Percy Opel drives a school bus for the district, and she said the parking lot is so bad it’s dangerous, and she worries someone is going to get hurt or some teen who just got their license is going to wreck their car.
“The bus rocks so bad the kids hit their heads on the windows, and we’re driving three miles per hour,” Opel said. “In the bus lane, there’s one pothole where if I stand in it, it goes up to my knees.”
Donza said there is money budgeted for some patch work, but the school board opted to hold off on a comprehensive fix until after a capital improvement committee wraps up its assessment of the overall campus needs, which could happen in the next month or so.
Donza acknowledged, though, that while Stowe is respected far and wide for its educational offerings, the facilities — and not just the high school parking lot — are in dire need of repair. During the annual town meeting that directly ensued, she made similar comments about the town’s recreational facilities.
“I would say that our school facilities do not reflect our commitment to high quality education,” Donza said.
Also at the annual school meeting, voters approved taking $500,000 from the district’s fund balance and using it as revenue to offset taxes.
According to Lamoille South finance director Andy Lundeen, the merged school district that, until last summer, included Stowe, had a $4 million fund balance. When Stowe withdrew from the district last year, it took about half of that, leaving Elmore and Morristown with $2 million, from which that $500,000 will be drawn.
Voters also approved expanding the school board to five members next year and moving future budgets and “all other public questions” to Australian ballot.
Leo Clark, while noting he does approve of that because of the potential for greater voter turnout, said he hoped the school district could at least find a way to keep the annual in-person meeting tradition alive.
Moderator Leighton Detora sounded a similar note.
“I am a great proponent of small-town America, particularly small-town Vermont, because it’s a place where you can still do business on a face-to-face basis, most often with people you know,” he said. “There’s a lot that goes with that that does not conform to the electronic age. It’s a time and place where others know your children, you know their children and you keep an eye out for one another.”
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