Students' mental health needs will contribute to increase in school spending next year
The vast majority of school budgets in Vermont won approval from local voters on Town Meeting Day, but the six districts in which voters said ‘no’ now face some difficult financial decisions.
Slate Valley Union Unified School District in Fair Haven has cut 40 staff positions over the last five years. And superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell says this year’s spending request was down from what the district sought three years ago.
Nonetheless, local voters rejected Slate Valley’s budget request on Tuesday.
“And so at some point, there’s nothing else left to cut if we still want, you know, great outcomes for kids, and so it’s super concerning,” Olsen-Farrell said Wednesday.
Of the 97 districts for which voting results were available on Wednesday afternoon, all but six won approval from local taxpayers.
Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said voters by and large appear to be grateful for the work schools have done during the pandemic.
“I think it signals general support for public education and school districts in Vermont,” Francis said Wednesday. “I think it’s reflective of community sentiment around the work that schools are doing.”
“The role of the school continues to change to provide those social-emotional supports that were historically in agencies outside of school districts."
For districts like Slate Valley, however, budget rejections will require a “reckoning,” according to Olsen-Farrell.
“And we are one of the lowest-spending districts in the state, we are in the bottom 50%, so it just doesn’t equate and it’s frustrating,” she said.
Based on the school budgets approved by local voters on Town Meeting Day, overall education spending in Vermont is forecast to rise by 5.2% next year.
That’s nearly a full percentage point higher than what analysts had predicted in December, and Peter Burrows, superintendent of the Addison Central School District, says students’ mental health needs are driving those costs.
“The role of the school continues to change to provide those social-emotional supports that were historically in agencies outside of school districts,” he said.
At Slate Valley, those new supports include after-school care at all four elementary schools in the district, free breakfast and lunch for all students, and a telemedicine program so kids don’t have to leave school to go to the doctor.
“All of these things are adding to our budget, and they’re not directly related to academics, and it’s been really hard to get the community to understand that,” Olsen-Farrell said.
Jeanne Collins is superintendent at Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, where local voters rejected a proposed budget for the Otter Valley Union Unified School District.
Collins said districts like hers are navigating a growing tension between the needs of their students and residents’ willingness to fund those services.
“Every child deserves an education, but not every child can access that education without the additional supports of mental health and behavioral supports,” Collins said. “And those are costs that schools must pick up in order to help the child access the education. And that’s not easily understood by the community either.”
Collins said the Legislature could help schools manage the cost of providing those supports by boosting funding for local community mental health agencies.
Voters in Alburgh, Cabot, Canaan and Missisquoi Valley school districts also rejected budget proposals.
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