(Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

School board reconvenes after budget fails

TOP: The Milton School Board is in the midst of preparing a new budget for a revote since its original proposal failed on Town Meeting.
ABOVE: Milton Superintendent Ann Bradshaw is pictured at a recent school board meeting. (Photos by Kaylee Sullivan)

Since Milton residents voted down a $30.1 million school budget on Town Meeting Day last week, school trustees have reconvened twice to begin working on a new proposal.

Initially a 5.45 percent overall increase from fiscal year 2017, the plan increased spending by $1.5 million and failed at the polls 1,038 to 677. Education spending per equalized pupil increased 6.79 percent under the measure.

When board members first went back to the drawing board last Thursday evening — including newcomer Jenn Taylor — they expressed concern about how to get the public more involved and aware of the process behind the final ballot numbers.

Trustees shared ideas of what to cut and what new programming should be prioritized. They did not have an audience.

Last Monday night’s meeting was livelier, however, as a group of around 12 school administrators, parents, residents and two children engaged in conversation in the high school library.

Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton) was also present to address the state’s role in budget increases.

At its reorganization meeting, board members questioned if it was possible to reword the ballot language to explain the common level appraisal, which was responsible for 70 percent of the proposed increase. Taxpayers with a $250,000 home would have paid an extra $21 per month.

Doing so is not a legal option, they learned. Talk of what it would mean to level-fund was also weighed.

A more concrete idea of what it would mean to make certain cuts was brought to the board’s attention when it reconvened Monday night. After meeting with administrators earlier that day, superintendent Ann Bradshaw brought two possible options to the table.

The first proposal, option A, would impose a 2.69 percent operating budget increase. The plan eliminates new programming for a pilot Tier III academic and therapeutic program in the elementary school, which includes one in-house social worker and two special educators.

Also at the elementary level, money allocated for field trips was halved, and fewer supplies were budgeted.

At the middle school, one classroom teacher would be cut, along with money for supplies and a special education teacher and behavioral interventionist for a new planning room.

District-wide, Option A removes a new music teacher position and four social workers administrators wished to move from contract to in-house and decreases data and assessment supplies, information technology professional development and special education supplies. A $30,000 portion of the district’s curriculum coordinator’s salary would possibly become grant-funded, totaling $832,052 in cuts.

Newly minted school trustee Jenn Taylor smiles for the camera. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

The plan would create a 4.63 percent increase in education spending per equalized pupil, the district’s numbers show.

Option B is a 1 percent operating budget increase and 2.85 percent climb in education spending per equalized pupil.

The elementary school would lose an existing classroom teacher and special educator, and the middle school’s proposed $20,000 middle school assistant principal position, a current special educator and one of the two newly proposed world language teachers are eliminated in the plan.

High school science materials, furniture and about $140,000 of miscellaneous personnel would also be cut.

One audience member was concerned that a sizeable chunk of these cuts would stem from special education spending, saying children with disabilities need to maintain a valuable education.

These options, though, are not set in stone. Bradshaw said the numbers were meant to give trustees and meeting-goers an idea of cuts’ impacts. 

“That’s our very reluctant position,” Bradshaw said. “None of this was easy to do.”

School trustee Cathy Vadnais said she hopes Bradshaw and administrators will open up the discussion to all faculty.

“I really would like us all to be in this together,” Vadnais said, noting faculty may have a more precise idea of where cuts can be made and where they shouldn’t.

Bradshaw intends to extend the conversation to faculty, but no meetings are currently set.

Once the community approves a new budget, Bradshaw said administrators will create a plan to address current problems, such as behavioral issues in the elementary classrooms, but with the resources they have.

The board will reconvene again early next week to continue budget discussion. Getting people out to vote the second time around, they noted, is even harder than the first. 

“Before we start slashing and burning and looking at all these things that we have to do without, there’s a part of me that wants to reach out, to knock on every door that has a kid in the school and say, ‘You need to vote. This is what’s happening in your school,’” trustee Karen LaFond said emotionally, noting the long path Milton has to become a school of choice.

Attendees, mostly all of whom supported the initial budget proposal, erupted in applause soon after.

Early on in Thursday’s meeting, Milton resident Lorraine Zaloom recognized the need to find more avenues to spread word about the budget. While she considers herself a fairly active person in the community, she said she was unaware of this month’s vote.

“There’s gotta be a better way to engage,” Zaloom said.

Brainstorming ways to explain the budget, its numbers and the state’s responsibility for some of the increase, the board is considering attending the next community dinner on March 23.

Trustees hope more people will come to the next meetings and let their voices be heard. Unfortunately, they said, they can’t respond to Facebook posts and comments; legally, they have to act as one, Vadnais explained.

Inviting Turner to Thursday’s meeting was one way chairwoman Lori Donna tried to educate residents about the state’s role in the increase, she explained.

Turner went into detail about Milton’s common level of appraisal, which experienced a 4 percent drop this year.

Two years ago, Milton homes were over-valued by 5 percent, Turner explained, meaning the state helped pay the extra percentage. Now, property values have increased, so taxpayers are paying almost fair market value and get less assistance from the state.

Further conversation included the danger of using fund balances from year to year to offset costs and how Milton is still recovering from when it level-funded in 2012.

Statewide education spending is climbing at too high of a rate, Turner explained, and Milton is beginning to follow.

“I want better outcomes for your kids,” Turner said. “But I also have the responsibility to the taxpayers who are telling me, ‘I can’t afford that.’”

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