Moderator Dr. Robert Backus suggested that voters agree to waive the full reading of the articles in lieu of hearing the articles one at a time as the meeting proceeded. Under Article 1, voters unanimously re-elected Backus as moderator for a term of one year. Article 2 was unanimously passed without comment, authorizing the board to spend unauthorized funds such as grants and gifts.
Article 3 asked voters to approve the annual tuition rate for students who attend approved independent schools, and, as in years past, the matter of how much the town pays to send students to other schools proved confusing to some voters. Windham Central Supervisory Union director Dr. Stephen John and Dr. Stephen Rucker, the WCSU finance officer, helped voters understand how the amount is determined, based on the average statewide tuition. According to the supervisory union, Wardsboro will pay $14,740 proposed tuition per child to send 54 students to Leland & Gray in Townshend and $13,742 to send 11 students to other approved schools. Article 3 passed by unanimous vote.
During the school district meeting, Wardsboro Elementary School principal Rosemary FitzSimons gave a slide presentation. She began by reassuring voters that she and the school board “look at each line item in the budget in order to carefully balance student needs with fiscal responsibility,” she said. “We try to keep the increases at zero or less.”
The emphasis of her presentation, however, was not education costs, but education results. She said, “I feel that the action plans that have been implemented have been instrumental in changing Wardsboro school.”
She showed charts that proved there were gains in New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) test scores in reading and in math, moving the ranking of Wardsboro’s students to the very top statewide. “We have been working toward a set of standards across the state, but this school reaches higher levels of excellence than the state currently has,” she said.
The students tested second highest in the state for reading and fourth highest in math. Two years ago, 36% of students in grades 3 through 7 were proficient in math, and now test scores indicate that 90% of students are proficient. In reading, 44% of students were proficient, and now 98% tested proficient or above.
FitzSimons called this change “phenomenal” and attributed it to a climate of student responsibility and increased behavioral support. “The students have shown they are taking responsibility in learning,” she said. “In the end though, it’s not about the test scores. It’s about knowing we are doing the best we can and starting our kids off on the right foot.”
John personally commended the Wardsboro School Board and the voters for their hard work and investment in education for the town’s children. “These kinds of improvements show that the principal and the teachers can control the weather in their school environment and there have been favorable winds in Wardsboro,” he said. “The trend lines are all positive. Consistent leadership is the key to this success, and the board made every effort to keep the current principal on staff. The food program has been critical as well.”
FitzSimons cited higher direct education costs as the reason for increases in the proposed school budget, specifically related to teacher salaries, special education costs, and costs for full-time one-to-one paraprofessionals. She remarked on the success of the child nutrition programs at the school. Not all of the food costs are fully refunded from state and federal governments. The school budget includes $45,500 for child nutrition – breakfast, lunch, and after-school snacks. About half of the students are income eligible for the free lunch program.
FitzSimons also explained that her contract with the school was changed as well, in part as a cost-saving measure. She will be present 175 days instead of 205, a payroll reduction of $8,000 (not including employee benefits). Her base part-time salary will be $76,000, plus benefits. She and the board members mutually agreed upon this arrangement, and she assured parents that on days she is not present in the building there will still be a person in charge of the school. The board also cut the school nurse’s hours from one full day a week to a half day per week.
Throughout the budget, the board made smaller line item reductions to try to control costs, but the overall increase still comes to 3.4%, which also leads to an increase in property taxes. The state uses a complicated formula by which it determines the property tax rates, a matter that is not in the hands of local school boards, a point that Rucker emphasized to the voters.
John said, “I know we like to beat up on the Legislature, but keep in mind that the increases are derived backwards from the predicted school budgets, and are based on the assumption that all school budgets will go up.”
John was also asked to explain certain line items in the WCSU budget related to costs for teachers who spend a small portion of their time at different schools in rotation, such as art teachers or music instructors.
He said the WCSU pays the teachers, and then assesses each town accordingly for them and for other services as well such as special education professionals and guidance counselors.
“It is easier to have these educators sign one contract with the WCSU, than to sign four or five contracts with each individual school board,” he said.
John also said that issues related to the federal sequester have affected their spending as school supervisors.
Wardsboro taxpayers are assessed $47,200 for supervisory administration, $4,000 more than last year.
About one hour after the meeting began, moderator Backus re-read Article 4 to the voters and the article passed, although the vote was not unanimous.
Article 5, the election of school board members, proceeded without comment. Rick Thorpe, Michael Cusick, and Sheri Lewis will all continue to serve additional terms.
Article 6 passed without discussion also, and the school board members’ compensation was set at $200, the same as the prior year.
Article 7 set the time and place of the 2015 school meeting for Monday, March 2, 2015, at 6:30 pm, at Wardsboro Town Hall.
Board chair Rick Thorpe said that he sees that there is more participation if the meetings are held in the evening before Town Meeting, so that more working parents are able to attend.
There was no further business transacted under Article 8 and the meeting was adjourned by Backus at about 8 pm, with many thanks to the voters and a final comment. “This is democracy at work,” he said.
Coffee service during Town Meeting was provided by a group of Wardsboro residents who are seeking to raise $6,000 to restore a set of antique backdrop curtains for the stage in town hall. Karen Davis showed images of the muslin curtains, which are being given to Wardsboro free by a grange in West Paris, Maine.
The group is seeking donations, volunteer workers, and ideas for fundraising to restore and install the vintage scenery.