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Budgets keep rising, but turnout keeps falling

BUHS district budget meeting ignored by 99.5 percent of eligible voters

BRATTLEBORO—Last week, 0.5 percent of registered voters approved a $27.8 million Brattleboro Union High School District #6 budget for fiscal year 2016.

Of the 14,174 eligible voters from the district towns of Brattleboro, Vernon, Guilford, Putney, and Dummerston, only 73 voters came to the BUHS gym to pass the budget overwhelmingly on a voice vote on Feb. 10.

School board chair Robert Woodworth told the small audience that despite declining enrollments at other schools, the Brattleboro Area Middle School has experienced an increase. The change in the student population bodes well for the high school in the coming years, he noted.

Woodworth said that compared to the previous year, the budget maintains level services, and it is close to being level-funded.

Total spending for BUHS, the Brattleboro Area Middle School, and the Windham Regional Career Center has decreased for FY 2016 by more than $160,000, compared to the current budget.

Just the same, the district tax rate is expected to increase in FY 2016, due to Act 60.

Woodworth said the school board and administration have also worked to construct a capital improvement plan that ensures the budget keeps pace with maintenance needs rather than taking the costly route of deferred maintenance.

From few to fewer

According to the district’s annual report, voter turnout has traditionally been low. Last year, 0.6 percent of registered voters approved a $27.7 million budget.

According to the annual report, which analyzed attendance at the 39 annual and special district meetings held between 1983 and 2014, only three meetings have broken the 1,000 mark. In the past decade, only one meeting had attendance above 200.

Last week marked the fourth-lowest attendance since 1983. Just 46 people attended a special meeting in 1986, which set the record for lowest turnout.

The highest number of votes cast — 4,556 — came in 2001 from an Australian ballot connected with the $55 million building renovations and construction of the high school, middle school, and career center. At the time, it was the largest school renovation in the state’s history.

Brattleboro resident Dick DeGray said that he was “very disappointed” that none of the state legislators representing the district towns attended the Feb. 10 meeting, given the rising costs of education.

Moderator Tim Arsenault prefaced his reading of the attendance numbers by saying, “Time to hear the dismal numbers.”

Arsenault said that he wanted to see a more robust discussion around education. The moderator of 16 years worried, however, that low attendance would prevent such a discussion.

While the attendance data in the annual report do not reveal to an obvious point in time for the decline in voter turnout, Arsenault wondered if the enacting of Act 60 in 1997 — which created a state funding mechanism to smooth education funding for children across the state, prompted by a state Supreme Court edict that the state’s longstanding reliance on local property taxes to directly fund the education of the local students — was flawed and gave people a sense that local control over school spending had vanished.

A matter of resignation, or a matter of trust?

Woodworth said people could interpret the low turnout as people giving up — or, he said, the numbers can be interpreted as voters having faith in the school district to produce a responsible budget.

The school district has not had any controversial or costly projects in recent years either, which tends to bring people to the meetings, he said.

When asked if people feel they’d lost local control and so don’t bother voting, Woodworth said the district does have local budget control.

“Depending on how you define ‘control,’” he said.

Much of the district’s budget is consumed by personnel costs, he said; these costs are driven by union contracts that are out of the district’s control.

Unfunded state and federal mandates or the unpredictability inherent in the state’s education funding structure can prove challenging as well.

In Woodworth’s opinion, the district maintains a responsible budget through things like its capital plan that fixes problems when they’re small, allowing the district to maintain infrastructure rather than replace it.

The school board has discussed many ways to increase turnout like switching from a floor vote to Australian ballot. The board also experimented with moving when it holds the annual meeting to a Saturday night.

That didn’t make a difference, he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #293 (Wednesday, February 18, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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