FAIRFIELD — The general consensus following a two-hour discussion in Fairfield Monday night was that the budget for Fairfield Center School should be trimmed by $30,000 to $50,000.
Roughly 30 people, many of whom expressed frustration with the current way education is funded in Vermont, attended the meeting at which the school board invited residents to provide input on where taxpayers would like to see cuts. The school’s $5.4 million budget has been rejected twice, despite an increase of only half a percent.
Under Vermont law all of the taxes to fund schools are collected in one pot – the education fund – and then paid back to schools. In Fairfield’s case, the town only pays 35 percent of the cost of running its school. In other words, town taxpayers would have paid just $1.9 million of the $5.4 million needed to operate the school if the budget had been approved.
Because of Vermont’s complex statewide formula for determining school tax rates, the smallest school budget increase in Franklin County resulted in the largest increase in the tax rate – 21 cents (see accompanying explanation of the formula).
In order to reduce the budget, the board is faced with cutting hours for the art and music teachers or the librarian, said Michael Malone, school board chair. It might also have to cut a classroom teacher. Foreign language instruction through Middlebury College – which costs $6,000 per year – could also be cut.
Transportation, particularly a bus bringing students to Bellows Free Academy (BFA) in St. Albans, could also be lost.
“What should we keep?” Malone asked.
Brad Ripley, who moved to Fairfield last year and has a child at the school, said his understanding is that “even if we cut the budget here by a significant amount it’s not going to impact my taxes.”
Malone said that is true. The second budget proposed by the board and defeated by voters last month, 174-143, had a tax rate increase of 21 cents, although the budget total it offered was up just $30,000 over this year’s spending. Of that increase only two cents was the result of the budget increase, said Malone.
A decrease in the town’s common level of appraisal caused a seven-cent increase. In other words, if the common level of appraisal hadn’t changed, the tax rate increase would only have been 14 cents instead of 21.
Similarly, a drop in the equalized per-pupil count of 11.9 is responsible for six cents of the increase, according to Malone. Like the CLA, the equalized per-pupil count is determined by the state. It is not simply a count of the number of students in the school, which in Fairfield has only decreased by two.
“It gets into some complicated formulas that are a moving target, quite frankly,” said Malone.
School board member Kenderlyn Phelps pointed out that while the budget is a PreK-12 budget, the cuts only impact students in grades K-8. The Fairfield School Board has no control over the cost of high school tuition or the preschool assessments.
Twenty-eight percent of the budget, $1.54 million, is high school tuition.
The board does have control over bus that takes students to BFA. The bus costs $42,000 per year and is ridden by about a dozen students from Bakersfield and Fairfield. The Bakersfield students purchase bus passes, while the Fairfield students ride for free.
The school does receive some state funding to help pay for the bus, which is 40 percent of the cost of operating the bus two years ago.
However, the general consensus among attendees at the meeting was that the bus should be cut.
Most members of the public were generally against cuts to staffing, particularly the hours of music teacher Joanne Scott.
John Doherty accused the board of using “scare tactics” by raising the possibility of cutting the hours of the well-liked music and art teachers. He asked why the board couldn’t cut paraeducators.
Fairfield has 13 paraeducators and law mandates their presence for students with special education needs, explained Malone. Under federal law, schools must educate children with special needs in the least restrictive environment and provide whatever support is necessary to achieve that goal. “We don’t have them just because we can,” Malone said of the paraeducators.
Sending a message
There was general frustration with the cost of education throughout the state and a suggestion that voters were rejecting the budget because “somehow a message needs to get to Montpelier,” in the words of one resident.
A number of town residents commented last night, including Kelly Stone who asked why it costs so much more to educate a student in Vermont than other states. At the same time, she didn’t want to reduce the music teacher from full-time to part-time unless the savings would be significant.
Malone pointed to Vermont’s success when compared to other states and countries. “We’re number seven in the world, and that’s against countries that don’t educate all of their kids,” said Malone. In many other nations students are tracked into technical schools and their test scores are not used in international comparisons.
The cost of a school “comes down to salary and benefits,” said Malone.
Pat Hartnett said the three drivers of education costs are class sizes, salaries and benefits and inclusionary practices. “You’re taking care of the most needy, keeping class sizes low… and rewarding good teachers,” he said. All of which benefit students, he suggested.
Chris Parody said she is a senior citizen and cannot afford tax increases.
Ripley suggested the greater issue is how school costs are paid, and that funding for education should come from income taxes and not property taxes.
Dustin Tannen said the board should avoid extreme cuts. Instead it should educate the public about the budget and what areas of the budget are beyond the board’s control. “Until I see 75 percent of the people come out and vote, I’m not convinced the budget is the problem,” he said.
Cutting staffing could cause students to fall behind in his view. “We’re taking away from our kids to send a message to people who aren’t even listening,” said Tannen. His remarks drew applause from the crowd.
Bridget Rivet supported Tannen’s call for better education of the public. “Put it in a light where people can understand what we get for $5 million,” she said. “Lay out the message and get it to the people.”
Stone added that she doesn’t understand the school funding formula. Without understanding, “it’s easy to make a judgment and jump to a no vote,” she said.
Joanna Jerose said there is a divide between the school and the town that is not the board’s fault, but is the board’s responsibility to correct.
“I do not think that this budget is a fatty budget,” said Jerose, adding that the areas where cuts are possible will not make much difference in people’s pockets.
John Baxter pointed out that the school risks losing good teachers to other schools if it cuts hours, salaries or benefits.
Like many schools in Vermont, Fairfield is experiencing declining enrollments. Doherty asked how the board planned to respond in the future, stating, “We just can’t continue to increase the spending per pupil.”
Bett Howrigan, a teacher at the school, explained that losses occur across grade levels and are rarely clustered in a way that allows for the reduction of a teacher. The school does have just one classroom for a number of grade levels.
Julie Wolcott suggested the group come up with an amount that seemed reasonable to ask the board to cut, and a general consensus emerged around a number originally suggested by Harold Howrigan of $30,000 to $50,000.
The board entered executive session for some discussion of personnel, but was expected to ask the administration to find cuts in that general range.