By Curt Peterson
Windsor Central Unified School District Board members were joined by a standing-room-only crowd Monday, Feb. 20, as the FY 2021 budget and discussion of food service costs were on the table.
Superintendent Mary Beth Banios advised the board and the public there would be no actual vote regarding adjustments necessary to match an approved budget meant to avoid per-pupil spending penalties that otherwise would cost taxpayers as much as $200,000.
At an emergency meeting on Jan. 30, inspired by a reduced equalized pupil count received the day before the Town Report warning deadline, the board approved a revised budget $200,000 lower than they had originally blessed. The reduction will restore per-pupil spending below the state penalty threshold.
The hunt for savings to justify the budget reduction continues.
Board member Ben Ford of Woodstock remarked the penalty, which would add 4 cents
to the education tax rate, would be “taxes paid for nothing in return.”
Following lengthy discussion and an executive session excluding public and press, the board is considering, among other strategies, eliminating board member stipends entirely, reducing the food service budget by $25,000 (in addition to keeping the $24,000 saved on a food service cashier), freezing administrative level salaries, reducing staff through consolidation and not replacing retiring or resigning employees where possible.
Banios said the board will be holding frequent budget meetings until it finds a way to match the approved budget and achieve their goal.
A few “public comments” went beyond the two-minute limit requested by board co-chair Paige Hiller. Topics included advocacy for the current in-house food service program led by manager Gretchen Czaja, and the feeling by some Reading residents that their satellite campus is being treated unfairly in the budget process.
At the Jan. 30 meeting, board member Jim Haff (Killington) had suggested revisiting the 2018 bidding process that resulted in engaging Czaja’s in-house program, which appeared to have added $300,000 in FY-2019 net costs to the district.
Lorissa Segal cited diabetes as a major health issue, and said, “Children learn about a healthy diet at school.”
Segal urged the board to retain the present program, which emphasizes nutrition, food quality and local sourcing of fresh ingredients. She and other area residents presented a petition with more than 100 signatures advocating for maintaining Czaja’s program rather than considering an outside vendor.
Segal’s husband Sam, who said he regularly eats at Woodstock Elementary School added he thinks FY-2020 should be used as the baseline to evaluate the financial viability of the in-house program, due to evolving efficiencies, and the district should commit to the Czaja program for five years.
Czaja said last year her team produced 96,599 high-quality student and adult lunches, plus many breakfasts, and cast doubts on the magnitude of actual net costs.
Erica, a young woman who identified herself as a senior at WUHS, pleaded passionately for the board to continue the current food system, saying she would much rather eat the school-provided food than lunches her mother would otherwise provide.
Haff told the Mountain Times a change in food providers would not be on the table until FY2022 as Czaja has a three-year contract with two years to go.
Boolie Sluka, whose husband Justin served on the Reading School Board, said proposed staff cuts at their small village elementary school are just another “promise unfulfilled” by Act 46 school consolidation, and a symptom of inequity among schools within the district.
“Reading represents only 5% of the district’s budget,” she said, “but will suffer 13 percent of the cuts. Reading is a ‘bare bones’ school already, so proposed reductions will have an outsized impact here.”
Implying that the Woodstock campus seems to get the most financial attention, Sluka said the district is unwisely threatening “to cut the arteries of the schools that feed 500 students to the high school.”
The board went into executive session to discuss personnel and contracts. When it came out, it announced it had agreed to reverse Banios suggestion to cuts to two positions at Reading Elementary and to eliminate the agriculture assistant position at WUHSMS. The board instead agreed to find cost savings in holding administration salaries to no raise (instead of the proposed 2%) and to cut an administrative position from the middle school/high school—suggesting either the dean or vice principal position.