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Burlington Superintendent On District's Financial Future, Proposed Layoffs

Annie Russell
Burlington schools Superintendent Yaw Obeng spoke with VPR about cuts to the FY17 budget and the financial future of Burlington schools.

Some parents are up in arms over proposed job cuts in the Burlington School District. The money-saving measure could result in 24 layoffs or the equivalent of 16 full-time positions.

Burlington High School would be hardest hit, with about eight positions being cut including ones from core teaching subjects like math, language arts and science.

Burlington schools Superintendent Yaw Obeng spoke with VPR about the proposed cuts and the district's financial future. 

Audio for this piece will be available by approximately 11 a.m. Monday, April 18.

On why the cuts are necessary: 

"I think people need to kind of step back and look at where we started. I mean, the real challenge was that we had to find $2.5 million in our budget in order to sustain where we are. And at the same time not double taxes in our community because of [Act] 46. So we would essentially have to take $2 to pay for $1 of education funding."

On how Act 46 plays into Burlington's budget problems:

"First of all, in terms of analysis in terms of our needs here in Burlington and our role here in the allotment of grants that we receive, we don't feel is equitable."

If the district were to raise the budget by more than 1.7 percent they would've been subject to a penalty per state law. 

"The legislation simply put a cap on how much we could increase our tax revenue from the public before we were penalized doubly. And that number for us — the max we could go up to — is the $2.5 [million] we needed ... If we ask for dollars beyond that, which was the 1.7 [percent] increase we asked the community [for], then we would have to double tax the community.

"So we didn't think that would give value to our community, in terms of paying double. At the same time, many of our seniors are on fixed incomes, people don't have the dollars to increase taxes again. And the majority of the community have expressed those concerns. 

"So that's where we went with this approach. Fortunately for us, we were in a situation that the board did really [well] fiscal responsibility the previous year, so we had a $1.1 million surplus that came in. Had we not done what we did last year, we would be in a very, very different situation. We have been looking at much deeper teacher cuts."

On exploring alternatives to cutting front line workers and teachers:

Obeng says they looked at alternatives before they considered cutting front line positions. 

"We don't want to touch this at the schools. I mean that's we get evaluated every single day in the system. And that evaluation comes in the form of when one of our students goes home and the parent says, 'How was school today?' And that's their world. They're not thinking about administration or transportation, all of those other areas. 

"I know that in the previous year, the board did a good job of thinning down those external areas so they have already been cut. And this year we had another look and we've cut them down as well. But the pie is only so big, and the biggest pie that we have is our stuff."

On transparency in the budgeting process: 

The district has received criticism for a lack of transparency in the budgeting and layoff process. Claire Wool, a Burlington school parent, said she'd yet to see a line-item budget, making it difficult to lay off staff. 

"We have not seen a line-item budget of the $84 million that we've voted on," Wool explained. "People do not want cuts until they see where we have allocated money." 

Obeng says he understands where Wool and parents like her are coming from.  

"I've actually spoken with Claire and I have spoken to other PTO members and I understand their frustration because what they're closest to is our teachers. 

"Throughout the process, I personally have been at fourteen public meetings, inviting people to talk about and give us suggestions. And people who had been supportive in terms of understanding that. The budget was approved with seventy percent, which was the highest in many years. So people kind of understood what we had to do. 

Obeng says that in the past line-item budgets have been released. 

"I know from the historic information I have received, and even from some board members, in the past, they have had the practice of budget line items ... and I know that has never been a successful product in terms of trying to do a budget by committee — whole community — where you just put it up and people make suggestions.

"I'll tell you when I had my community consultations, in the beginning, I asked people, 'What would you give up in order to get something?' The one response is administration. Because that's a give in. People always say 'Administration, go there and cut that out.' But ... there's only so much in that pie."

Obeng says that the 16 full-time positions are gone. 

"They've been the vibes at those positions are gone. What I'm saying is as we go through the process we may have opportunities to recall back some of those positions but that's an ongoing continuous thing. I see that going right through through the summer." 

On providing quality education: 

"We are embarking this month — and that's why I am actually kind of keen to get people to reconcile that we've had to do this — it's not something we want to do but we want to move forward. And we're starting our strategic planning process. That's really to identify our priorities and talk about our values, what we value here in Burlington, and some of the mechanisms and philosophies around that. 

"Once we have a plan that has some priorities, our budget will be to resource that plan. So we'll have a debate about what we value what we don't value and we can say 'Ok we've got dollars. We're going to do that.' And they also allow us — because it's a multiyear plan — to start doing our budgeting much sooner. 

"So as soon as we're finished with this budget, we're going to start planning the next day. We've already started having a conversation about FY18. I'm hoping that we have a process next year that we're having a community conversation at budget time around the things we want to add. As opposed to things we want to take away. But we need to do this more to get there."

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
Alex was a reporter and host of VPR's local All Things Considered. He was also the co-host and co-creator of the VPR program Brave Little State.
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