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During the June 9 annual school budget meeting, community member Deena Staples makes her case for amending the second article of the amendment to include an additional $52,000. Staples wanted the funds reinstated in order to have two second grade classes next year at the elementary school. That amendment, and all others brought to the floor at the June 9 meeting, was eventually voted down and the budget approved as presented in the warrant. Also pictured in foreground are principals Todd West, left, and Mike Benjamin.
by Jessica Brophy
At an emotionally charged and complex meeting, 80 voting residents of Deer Isle and Stonington approved the school board’s recommended budget of $6,329,608. The warrant articles were eventually passed without changes, though several amendments were proposed, discussed and voted down.
The budget is down approximately 1.95 percent, or $126,164, from last year’s total of $6,455,772. However, the amount to be raised from taxation has increased 1.2 percent, or $65,931, from last year, due to a decrease in state funding.
Three major issues complicated the meeting. First, two citizens proposed amendments to the regular instruction budget—one for the funds for a second teaching position for the second grade and one for funding the high school business and technology position.
Second, Stonington selectman chair Chris Betts proposed a successful early vote on Article 17—which fixed the total budget amount.
Third, high school principal Todd West proposed an amendment to reduce the budget line for “career and technical education” (primarily the marine trades program), in light of information he had recently received. West then proposed amending the “student and staff instructional support” budget line to reinstate the librarian position from half time to full-time.
Ultimately, the warrant budget recommended by the school board was passed unchanged.
Proposed amendments to instruction warrant
Resident Deena Staples proposed an amendment to the second warrant article, which approves spending for instruction. Staples moved to add $52,000 to the warrant article. Staples said she wanted the sum used to create a second teaching position for the second grade. As it stands, next year there will be only one second grade classroom, with 23 students.
After Staples voiced her amendment, Cameron Ciomei proposed $67,000 be added to the budget, to reinstate the high school technology teacher.
Elected moderator Nathan Dane attempted to consider the amendments together, but after concerns were voiced about the proper order for the consideration of amendments under Robert’s Rules of Order, residents overruled the moderator to consider the amendments separately.
Resident and early childhood educator Wendy Faulkingham voiced her support for the amendment, saying consolidating the classrooms would be “a terrible disservice to the children.”
Stonington selectman Donna Brewer asked how many teaching aides were slated for the second grade classroom. Elementary school principal Mike Benjamin responded that there were none, but that five or six students are pulled out during reading and math instruction for extra help.
The amendment was then voted down by written ballot, 32 for and 43 against.
The second amendment, to reinstate the technology/business position, was considered. High school student Brandon Heannsler was given permission to speak on the subject. “This teacher is not just the business technology teacher, her class also produces the school Web site and she serves as the school’s technology integrator,” said Heannsler. “I feel strongly that this money needs to be put in for student success.”
Resident David Davis also spoke in favor of the amendment. “Last year the school committee made the commitment to one-to-one computing and made the investment in the machines, and whose responsibility will it be to make sure these devices are used appropriately?” he asked. “It’s vital to have oversight.”
Colin Bruce, a 2008 graduate, also voiced support for the measure.
Resident Doug Johnson shared his views, supporting the budget without amendments, as approved by the school board. “I think it’s important to recognize the elephant in the room: We’re educating fewer and fewer and fewer students. I know how difficult it can be to do this,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a person in this room who doesn’t have something they would like to see put in.”
High school art teacher Katy Helman asked the board members why they thought a technology position should be cut, and how teachers would integrate those technologies. “It’s important to have kids come out of here with those skills, it’s a content area,” said Helman, who expressed concern about her lack of training in certain technologies.
Board member Linda Nelson responded by saying that the school board is not anti-technology. “We asked the principals to choose the cuts,” she continued, and asked West to speak to Helman’s particular questions.
West said after considering the issue, he thought technology should be integrated into the classroom instead of taught separately, and toward that end more money for professional development was included in the budget.
The second amendment was also voted down by written ballot, 26 for and 51 against.
Early vote on total budget amount
After the two amendments to Article 2 were discussed and voted upon, Chris Betts made a motion to consider Article 17, the total budget amount, out of order.
Residents voted by a show of hands to consider Article 17. High school faculty member Mike Wood asked Betts why he wanted to move to Article 17. Betts replied that he felt the “total recommended by the school board is an appropriate amount.”
School board member Andrew Vaughn expressed his displeasure at moving the article. “It’s with a heavy heart that I say vote for Article 17,” he said. Vaughn supported Article 17, the total budget recommended by the school board, but was unhappy at taking the total budget line out of order, as he thought it limited the ability of people to voice opinions.
Johnson disagreed with Vaughn. “This is not an attempt to shut people up. This article just fixes the total budget, it doesn’t stop discussion.” And, he continued, if the numbers don’t add up at the end, “it’s [the school board’s] problem, not ours.”
Resident Heidi Nolan expressed her displeasure at the change in process, saying she wanted her daughter and other students to be heard by those gathered.
Residents voted to allow her high school-age daughter, Danielle Allen, to speak. Allen shared her dreams of building laptops and making video games and her relationship with technology, and stressed how important it is to have technology education. She then asked what will happen to the Island’s youth when the lobstering industry fails. “It’s a possibility,” she said. “What are we going to depend on then? We need to broaden our horizons.”
Residents also allowed freshman Marissa Donovan to speak. “As you can see, our whole school is really ambitious,” she said. “For something like technology to be cut is shocking, because it will be in everything we do. I know money is really tight lately, but technology is important.”
Discussion then closed, and Article 17 was put to a show of hands and passed, thereby setting the total budget amount for the school. This shaped the rest of the meeting, in that changes to the one budget line would need to result in changes to other budget lines to have the numbers tally at the end.
Discussion of the marine trade program and librarian position
As the budget line for the marine trade program was discussed, high school principal Todd West addressed the crowd, and proposed an amendment reducing that budget line by $30,685.
“I just found out that [marine technology teacher] Tom Duym is going to half time next year,” said West. He then explained his desire to reduce the marine trades program by three courses, and to reallocate that funding to increase the librarian position funding (which was on warrant Article 6, a different budget line).
School board member Virginia Olsen voiced her opinion that the funding should stay where it is.
Vaughn also encouraged people to vote no. “Things always change after the budget is announced. I find it difficult to say there’s more money available for something when we just voted down two amendments. The school board was given no notice about this, which means we haven’t had public discussion on it.”
Wood expressed his support of West’s proposal.
Superintendent Bob Webster reminded those present that reducing the marine trades program budget line by that amount “precludes the board from looking to hire a full time [marine trades] position, as [the board] can transfer only five percent from one line to another.”
The amendment to reduce the marine trades budget by $30,685 passed by a show of hands.
When the sixth article was read, West proposed an amendment to increase its allocation by the same amount, $30,685. He expressed his opinion the funding should be used to increase the librarian’s recently reduced position from half time to full time.
“I have never seen the staff changing the budget against the school committee’s recommendations on the floor like this,” said Doug Johnson. “I would move against the motion.”
Board Chairman Mark Cormier reminded the audience, “Putting money into a line does not insure funding for a position,” and urged a vote against the amendment.
“This has been a very painful process for the school committee and the administration,” said school board member Skip Greenlaw. “This is a delicate balance, and you should trust us to do the right thing on this.”
Olsen again expressed her problem with the fact the school board had not had a chance to discuss the issue.
Board member Vickie Zelnick agreed with Olsen. “With less than 24 hours of notice on the issue, I ask that you not tie the hands of the school board,” Zelnick said. “We had to make hard choices, and this would restrict us. Give us the flexibility we need.”
Resident Jim Adams disagreed with the board members. “The school board is micromanaging these schools instead of trusting the administrators,” he said. “You’re deciding you know best how to educate our children.”
Board member Nelson disagreed, again stressing the role the board assigned to the administrators in the budget process. “We worked very hard to make this budget,” she said. She explained that the board gave the administrators target numbers and let them decide where and how to make the cuts, refusing to make individual cuts as a board. Part of the problem with changing the budget on the floor of the budget meeting, Nelson continued, was there are two schools to consider, not just one. “There is a process,” she said.
“I think the board thinks that Todd [West] is trying to pull a fast one on the board,” said faculty member Katy Helman. “But I think he’s just trying to repair a situation.”
By a show of hands, the amendment was defeated. The rest of the articles were passed unchanged, and at the end of the list of articles, there was another motion to reconsider the fourth article. The fourth article, which had been reduced by $30,685, was reinstated to the school board-recommended level. Thus, the budget was approved unchanged from the original warrant.
Post meeting comments
When asked for comment in a follow-up call, West said he was pleased at the turnout and engagement with the budget. When asked specifically about his attempts to amend the budget, he said he understood the board’s displeasure.
“I think the school board is currently sitting with three new members, and they’re still in the process of learning about the relationship of board and administrators,” he said. “I guess they would have preferred having an opportunity to discuss the issue before the budget meeting.”
School board chairman Mark Cormier agreed in a follow-up interview. “Todd [West] acted very unilaterally and without any input from Bob [Webster] and Mike [Benjamin] or the board.”
When asked why, if the school board had asked administrators to determine appropriate areas for budget cuts, West’s amendments were opposed by the board, Cormier said the process is more complicated than it might seem.
“When I say we sent the budgets to the administrators to cut, Mike [Benjamin] and Todd [West] have their [schools’] wants and needs weighed against each other through Bob [Webster]. The board gives direction, and lets administrators do their job. While it is the administrators who decided the cuts, the school board does have to ok them.”
In regard to the reinstatement of the librarian position, Cormier expressed his doubts. “In my opinion as a parent, not as a board member, the library is really used as more of a study hall area, and the librarian is more of a supervisor to a group of kids,” Cormier continued.
In a follow-up interview, Webster clarified what might happen with the issues after the budget approval . When asked whether the marine trades budget could be reduced and the librarian’s position reinstated, as the public seemed to support, Webster said yes, but only if a special meeting is called. The board can only transfer five percent of budget lines, which would not be enough to adjust the librarian’s position from half time to full time.
The school board is scheduled to meet again on Thursday, June 16, at 6 p.m., in a special meeting to certify the budget and to conduct other business.