GEMS budget up 5 percent

Includes $90k to explore in-house food service program

Georgia School Board settled on a FY14 budget on January 8 that represents a 5.05 percent increase.

The $12.58 million plan will go for voter approval this Town Meeting Day.

“I’m here to advocate for education,” Superintendent Ned Kirsch said during a budget meeting December 18. “The budget is above rate of inflation, which you generally do not do, but while you were holding tight, it seems others were not.”

The Shumlin administration again asked school officials to keep budgets under the rate of inflation – about 2 percent – this fiscal year, lest the statewide property tax rate increase three to five cents.

But in Georgia, which was one of only 15 districts statewide to meet the Challenges for Change initiative to level school spending in FY2011, board members said they don’t feel like “being good dubies” did them any good.

Of this year’s larger budget, board member Jen Petrie said in December, “It hurts a little bit, but we’ve been overly responsible … We’ve met all the challenges, done everything we’re supposed to and haven’t reaped any benefits from it.”

Despite budget decreases by more than 1 percent in FY11 and FY12, Georgia taxpayers have been subjected to increased tax rates since 2010. Business Manager Chris Sumner estimates town tax rates will increase by 6 cents.

Last year, administrators proposed a 2.86 percent increase, partly achieved by cutting hours for an Enrichment program instructor. Parents and teachers criticized that solution, so short-changing Enrichment was eventually scrapped in favor of a 3.08 percent increase. The message the community sent last year was its desire for the best K-8 education possible, regardless of cost.

This year, due to “costs we can’t control” like rising health benefit expenses, increased tuition rates at receiving high schools and special education, Sumner’s budget increased by nearly $400,000, or 3.32 percent, from FY13’s before new programs and equipment were even included.

The assessment GEMS owes the Franklin West Supervisory Union also increased by 3 percent this year to $430,585 due to those basic factors, Sumner said.

The school will also pay the SU almost $149,000 for four speech-language pathologists shifted from GEMS to FWSU, a voluntary move in compliance with Act 153, which consolidates supervisory union duties to cut costs. Administrators assured the board no student services will be diminished as a result of these employees potentially serving all three SU schools.

Other expenses are related to technology, teacher development and improving the school food program.

“Investments we’re talking about tonight in your school and infrastructure are good ones,” Kirsch said.

Though he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the 5 percent increase, School Board member Carl Laroe said it doesn’t contain any frivolous spending.

An additional $29,000 funds 58 more iPads. The school put personal digital devices in the hands of all sixth- through eighth-graders last year and invested in iPad carts for all K-5 classrooms.

The purchase will ensure all students have access to a device when the carts visit their classrooms; currently, each cart is a few iPads short to outfit every student, elementary Principal Steve Emery said.

The school board also allocated $25,760 to increase a computer technician’s hours to full time, creating two of those positions at GEMS. By adding more than 300 new devices this past year, more human power is necessary to maintain them, Kirsch said.

A $5,000 increase would prepare to replace a switch in the school’s phone and web system. The 10-year-old device hasn’t broken yet, but Kirsch said it would impact students if it failed.

Heeding opinions of attendees at a November budget forum, the proposal also includes $4,000 more for teachers’ professional development.

Parents have also voiced concern this year about the school food program. GEMS is in the final year of its three-year contract with the Abbey Group food service, and during the forum, parents and school board members expressed dissatisfaction with food quality.

In response, Kirsch, Principal Frank Calano, a parent and school board members Doug Bergstrom and Jen Petrie visited Milton Town School District that runs its own food program.

Based on figures gleaned from Milton and another school, administrators included $90,000 to hire a food service director and to pay for unspecified start-up costs of an in-house lunch program. That expenditure remains in the budget, but based on Kirsch and Sumner’s recommendations, the board also decided to go to bid for a one-year school food contract for next year while doing more groundwork for its own program.

Sumner said the board’s hot lunch committee – which currently includes board representation from Petrie, who was not at the January 8 meeting, as well as parents, two students and Calano – hasn’t been “using its voice loud enough.”

“We haven’t used that committee to advocate for changes we want to see in our school,” she said. “It’s our program; they’re just running it for us.”

Kirsch said an independent lunch program might be one way to get its desired outcome, but the district could also increase meal costs and implore Abbey to put the revenue toward better food.

The school board chairman agreed: “We do need to put more pressure [on the Abbey Group] … but I’m not sure we shouldn’t have a backup plan somewhere, too,” Bergstrom said.

Emery said it was important to have “a widespread voice” and suggested including more students on the lunch committee.

The board decided to also create a subcommittee separate from the hot lunch committee to address the food program issue.

Board member Cheryl Letourneau and Bergstrom volunteered for the subcommittee, which will also include Sumner, both principals and five students, one from each grade 4-8. The group will meet and report back at the school board’s regular March meeting with any changes they’d like to see to the program, including any price increases, Bergstrom said.

The school board meets again February 5 at 6 p.m. in the GEMS library.

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