Outburst rankles School District meeting

MONT VERNON – A heated Town Meeting on Tuesday night was followed with an even more heated School District meeting on Friday night.

Local and national economic concerns by the voters in attendance approved a budget reduced by $163,659, or a 3.5 percent decrease from the proposed sum of $4,592,061.

The rancor hit its peak during the debate on the line items of the school district budget, which included 29 fiscal amendments, nearly five hours of discussion and a School Board member walking out of the meeting.

The reasoning behind School Board member Peter Schmidt’s departure arose during an amendment of a line item, an allocation for professional subscriptions, from $610 to the fiscal 2008 level of $277.

When Schmidt asked which subscriptions would be cut and couldn’t get an answer, he said to the audience, “I hope you enjoy your school; you’ve really screwed it up,” and then walked out of the meeting.

The amendment to reduce the subscriptions was defeated after an additional vote, 73-69. It was one of four amendments that were too close for a simple show of hands.

A $3,000 reduction for salaries toward curricular development, which the district administration described as additional money given to teachers for activities beyond their regular job specifications geared toward bettering district curriculums, was defeated, 77-62. A $3,701 reduction in custodial salaries was passed 75-68, and a $15,222 reduction in teachers salaries was passed by one vote: 82-81.

The teacher salary reduction was in response to a rebuke of an attempt by the district to turn the Mont Vernon Village School Spanish teacher position into a full-time position. Supporters of the reduction claimed the increase in status for the position was secondary to improving English and math aptitude, as well as the discrepancy for students when they go to Amherst Middle School, as Amherst Elementary Schools don’t have a Spanish program.

Mont Vernon resident Zoe Fimble cited these concerns with a reference to the district’s proposal to change the responsibilities of the Mont Vernon Village School’s literacy coach position.

“It has really bothered me going to a Budget Committee meeting hearing that our children are doing poorly in English and then hearing that Amherst starts their Spanish program in seventh grade while our kids have to wait for them to catch up,” Fimble said.

“Also, if we got rid of that expense” of making the Spanish position full-time, “maybe we don’t have to spend $23,000 on a separate literacy program because they would spend more time learning English.”

Opponents of the reduction cited that learning a second language helps in literacy of native languages and aptitude in other scholastic areas.

Mont Vernon resident and Amherst Middle School Spanish teacher Leanne Steenhoek voiced her support for making the Spanish position full time.

“There’s well-documented value to learning a second language; there’s a critical window to learning a second language that closes at 11,” Steenhoek said. “It’s the difference between sponging in a language and formal study.

“Ideally, Spanish needs to be used to reinforce concepts across the curriculum. It is well documented between students that are talented in math, music and a second language.”

Before the end of Steenhoek’s testimony, someone in the audience yelled, “Your time is up,” one of many heated comments made throughout the evening.

“There’s no reason to applaud or boo,” resident Jay Wilson said. “We’re all adults; we should all act like adults.”

Excluding the charged atmosphere of the evening, the main driving force of the night was resident Kim Roberge, who proposed 12 of the 29 amendments, totaling $48,835.

However, Roberge also opposed several proposed cuts, such as the attempt to stop the increase for the Spanish position, and also amended two of her own amendments after realizing the intent of her amendment didn’t align with the actual number initially proposed.

Roberge wasn’t alone in regard to accounting difficulties coming from the new system being introduced for line items in the budget. Resident Jerry Wall proposed to reduce the administrative salary increase from 4 percent to 3 percent, but when asked by the moderator for the dollar amount, he was unable to reply, and it took the district administration a few minutes to come up with the eventual figure of $400.

Even the School Board added to the cuts, with Chairman Jayson Darula proposing a $20,000 cut in the budget for fuel oil, citing the ability of SAU 39’s ability to obtain fuel oil at a lower price than expected and the expectation that the Budget Committee would reduce the fuel oil budget line by $10,000 regardless of their action.

After passage of the budget at about 11:30 p.m. – four and a half hours after the meeting started – the other six articles passed easily and the meeting concluded around midnight.

Among the other successful articles were an agreement for a new collective bargaining agreement between the district and the teachers and a 10-year agreement with Amherst toward sending Mont Vernon children to Amherst Middle School, which was already approved in Amherst with 86 percent of the vote.