The Silver Lake Regional School Committee meeting on Thursday, February 13 began with a public budget hearing on the budget for fiscal year 2021. Committee Chair Jason Fraser opened the floor to anyone from the public that wished to speak on the budget.
A member of the public speaking on behalf of the Union said, “Research has consistently shown that the single most important school-based factor in student achievement is teacher quality… that’s why it’s so important that Silver Lake’s budget focuses on attracting and retaining great teachers.” He continued saying, “the budget as the version 2 was presented seems to be cutting the exact factor that’s most important to student achievement. I would urge the school committee to direct the superintendent to reexamine the budget and make cuts to areas that have less of a direct impact to student success.”
He also read a statement from the 8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) teachers at the middle school. Those teachers were concerned that one of the proposed cuts included revamping the twenty-first literacy class and integrating it into the 7th grade curriculum. In the statement, the teachers expressed their concerns that this would remove teachers from their areas of expertise thus lessening the quality of the education the students receive.
Halifax town administrator Charlie Seelig also addressed the committee, beginning by acknowledging the difficulties inherent in creating the budget. “Doing the budget is probably one of the worst parts of the job.” He continued, “ …having to cut back incrementally, piece by piece and taking apart the Silver Lake school system in order to find some happy medium between what the towns can afford and what our students need is a very difficult proposition especially given that almost every single dollar of increase in the budget from year to year right now is a dollar that’s coming from the three communities.” Seelig also stressed the lack of money coming in from the state as well as the competition posed by charter schools. Students attending charter schools from the Silver Lake district increased from 20 in 2013 to 58 in 2020.
“I can’t come to you and say this is a terrible budget, you didn’t cut enough – you cut a lot,” Seelig said. Seelig said that it appeared to him that the assessment among the three communities was around 3.2 percent whereas he was hoping to see something closer to 2 or 2.5 percent. It is worth noting that administrators came up with an assessment number that they say is closer to 2.99 percent. Seelig also pointed out that while on the surface it appeared that the assessment to Halifax was quite low at 1.2 percent, that number doesn’t accurately reflect the true cost to Halifax. According to Seelig there were expenses transferred to shared cost that are no longer reflected in the Silver Lake budget. Additionally, Seelig shared his concerns that Halifax is again being asked to fund their share of the middle school resource officer through an article at town meeting as it is yet another cost to the town that is not included in the budget as presented.
Seelig, who has worked for Halifax for 24 years, said that it would be difficult for him to go to town meeting in May and tell residents to vote against the school budget because of the low assessment to Halifax this year. However, Seelig said he wants residents to understand that several years from now that assessment is going to climb as their share of the school population will inevitably increase. “Compound interest just keeps accumulating and at some point, we’re not going to be able to afford this,” Seelig explained.
Chair of the Halifax Finance Committee Melinda Tarsi also spoke during the hearing saying that while she shared many of the same concerns as Seelig she wanted to focus her comments on the part time school resource officer at the middle school. “We had the conversation last year concerning the structure of the financing and we had hoped that given a year more of talking and development that we would be able to find a way to successfully negotiate an agreement that would allow us to place the cost for the part time SRO into the assessment and to work out a more equitable arrangement among the police departments,” Tarsi said. “As we understand it, there hasn’t been a significant change in the approach that is being taken and that this is going to be placed as an article, again, this year at the Halifax town meeting,” she continued. Tarsi was quick to point out that Halifax and the Finance Committee are in favor of both the position and the increased safety the position presents, but that they continue to be opposed to the proposed mechanism to fund that position. Tarsi said that Silver Lake shouldn’t be allowed to introduce articles with requests for positions since no other department is allowed to do that.
Chair of the Kingston Finance Committee Carl Pike also spoke to the committee, beginning his comments, much like Seelig did, with an acknowledgment of how difficult it is to create the budget. Pike commended Silver Lake for coming in with a bottom-line increase of 2.91 percent but noted that they were asking other departments to come in lower, at around 2.5 percent. Like Seelig, Pike pointed out that these yearly increases will prove difficult to sustain in the long run. Pike said that the average tax bill in Kingston is $6500 and pointed out that if all departments come in at a 3 percent increase it would mean an additional $200 onto the average bill. “If that happens year after year, it is just not sustainable,” Pike said.