More than 30 students, teachers, parents, and grandparents attended the meeting to voice their concern about cuts the board planned to make to the school’s student assistance program. The program provides counseling and other support for students for issues as varied as tobacco cessation to thoughts of suicide. Deerfield Valley Community Partnership Director Cindy Hayford said student assistance counselor Dawn Borys works with more than 100 students every year. In a letter to the board, Hayford said that, during the current school year, Borys has referred nine students for substance abuse counseling and 26 students for mental health counseling.
Hayford offered some troubling statistics from DVCP’s latest youth risk survey at WSSU. According to the study, 16% of students in grades 9 and 10 and 15% of students in grades 11 and 12 had made a suicide plan in the previous year. The number is higher than statewide figures by about 5%. High school girls are more likely to make a suicide plan, according to the survey, with a full quarter saying they had made a plan. “When you see the number of students who have made suicide plans, I’m worried that you would even consider cutting services,” Hayford said.
Hayford also said the program has helped reduce alcohol and tobacco use at the high school. Data Hayford provided showed a steady drop since between 2003 and 2013, from 56% to 30% of students who said they used alcohol in the past 30 days. Marijuana use has fallen and leveled off at about 21%. Tobacco use is at its lowest point, with 13% of students saying they’ve used tobacco in the last 30 days. “I’m the tobacco cessation coordinator for the state and I can tell you we have the most successful cessation program in Vermont.”
Dario Lussardi, a psychologist at the Community Counseling Center in Wilmington, said he has worked with the student assistance counselors for the past seven years. He said the middle and high school students are under a lot of stress. “Kids make impulsive decisions,” he said. “There have been suicide attempts, attempts at personal injury, substance abuse, running away… . The student assistance counselors provide a pause button for kids, and it can be a life-saving situation. We can avert a lot of crises by working together. It would be a tragedy to eliminate these positions.”
Two students offered their own testimonials. A high school junior said she had been in crisis, and was assessed for admission to the Brattleboro Retreat. She said she’s receiving counseling for cutting herself and suicide attempts. She also said tobacco cessation counseling had helped her cut down on smoking, and she was looking forward to quitting tobacco altogether.
A sophomore told board members that the student assistance counselor was also the creator and advisor to the Twin Valley Gay Straight Alliance group, which he said has had a positive impact on the entire school. “It has helped me with ways to deal with homophobia, ways to avoid homophobia, ways to keep out of danger, and ways to express myself without worrying about homophobia. Without (Borys’s) help, I wouldn’t have come out and be the person I am today.”
Grandparent Janet Boyd said she realized the board was under pressure to contain the budget, but she also said that the school needed to maintain programs to attract more tuition students. “To break down a working, functional program in the school, that parents, counselors, and kids support, is not going to help us,” she said. “We need to keep moving forward. I know you’re between a rock and a hard place, but the bottom line is we have kids who need this.”
Kimberly Hicks said she has used the SAP services as a parent. “I’ve gone to them to get counseling on how to deal with teenage issues,” she said.
Parent and teacher Carrie Blake said the counselors are particularly vital in light of the increase in opiate use around the state. “Heroine and opiates are here,” she said. “Their use is prominent in the valley. Smoking is up, and inhalant use is up among our girls. We need to start young with prevention and it takes time to build trust. These counselors have already built trust in the schools.”
School board chair Seth Boyd thanked the crowd for coming to the meeting and advocating for the program. Board member John Doty said including the program in the budget would only be half the battle, and he called on those at the meeting to vote or get their parents to vote on the budget. “This is not the end of it,” he said. “If we reinstate the program, we’re going to need support to pass the budget, and we’re facing some very stiff numbers.”
Although the budget will be less than the current year, Doty said Whitingham taxpayers were facing an estimated 17-cent increase in the education tax rate, and Wilmington taxpayers could see a 9-cent increase. “It’s not what we expected at this point, but we had unexpected losses of revenue, and that’s why we’re in this pickle. If you can see us through the pickle, we can do something.”
But the public had budget concerns other than the student assistance program. Rebecca Sweeney asked about budgeting for administrative positions next year, when there will be two school buildings rather than three.
Boyd said the board budgeted for a “co-principal structure” at the middle/high school for the transition year. “We felt it was important to have all three administrators involved in the transition,” Boyd said. “They’ve been very involved in the process.”
Board members also noted that two vice-principal positions had been eliminated.
Board member Phil Taylor said the board planned to look at academic and administrative issues along with the transition. “Our job is to focus on the transition and transformation of our schools, but I think we have to resist the urge to do some radical transformation before we have done the transition,” he said. “We’re looking to move to a model more commensurate with our size and our advantages, more personalized. There has been discussion of transforming from a credit-based system to a standards-based system. There’s a lot of transformation we’d like to see, but we’re trying not to get too far beyond the transition so we can take that next step.”
But Boyd questioned some of the budget priorities. “As a taxpayer I feel like you have a lot of fluff that’s not productive, and that bothers me. Incentive bonuses that are in place for administrators strikes me as fluff, and I don’t understand it. I don’t understand how it has come about. And there are other folks that are called on to do a lot more. I know the budget is crucial and there are going to be some cuts, but is there anything else that’s going to knock our socks off?”
Boyd said the board’s priority was to cut the budget while preserving programs. “We want to make sure we’re building a school kids want to go to. It takes good staff, and it takes money. We’re trimming where we think we can, and hearing feedback from students and staff to help guide us is good. But at the end of the day, it’s the voters who get the say.”
After an executive session the board reconvened to hash out a final budget figure. The first motion, offered by Taylor at $9,693,159, would have reinstated the student assistance counselor and a .75 FTE music position at the middle high school.
Board member Adam Grinold said he wouldn’t support any motion on the budget. “I feel strongly that we haven’t taken the opportunity to deliver on the savings we said we could. When we look at the combined middle/high school budget, that number is virtually the same pre- and post-consolidation. I don’t feel like we’ve looked at staff positions hard enough. And next year we’re looking at the potential loss of user fees.”
In a roll call vote, only Taylor voted in favor of the motion, with Grinold, Doty, and board members Aimee Reed and Dennis Richter voting against it.
Richter advocated for a $30,000 cut in technology at the elementary school. The money would be used to upgrade iMac computers, but Richter said the upgrades could wait for another year, or the computers could be leased for less money. He offered a motion for a budget of $9,656,546, but it failed with support only from Richter and Taylor. Doty declined to vote.
A third motion offered by Taylor and Reed included the reinstatement of the student assistance program and the $30,000 cut in technology. That figure, at $9,609,413, passed with only Grinold voting against. “That was painful,” said Boyd, “but we have a budget number.”
The budget figure was later changed in a technical correction, to $9,863,472. According to Boyd, the adjustment reflects $254,059 in federal schoolwide funding. He said the funding is revenue-neutral, meaning the increase in the budget figure won’t mean an increase in the estimated school tax.
Overall, Boyd said, the budget is down by more than $228,000 over the current year.
Although the student assistance program was not eliminated, it has been reduced to 1 FTE from 1.2 FTE. The budget also anticipates energy savings of about $15,000 thanks to the pellet boiler at the elementary school, and a reduction in the WSSU assessment of about $38,000.
Board members scheduled public informational meetings on Tuesday, February 25, at 7 pm at Twin Valley Elementary School, and Thursday, February 27, at 7 pm at Twin Valley Middle School.