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Newfane Town Clerk Carol Hesselbach, left, and Selectboard member Shelly Huber check in voters on June 10 at a drive-through polling station in the parking lot of NewBrook Fire & Rescue.

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West River towns kill school budget

Despite votes in favor of the Leland & Gray budget, the school board must present a new spending plan

NEWFANE—Voters in the five-town West River Modified Union Education District will need to continue the process of building a budget for fiscal year 2021 after narrowly defeating a proposed $12 million budget on June 10.

“While disappointing, it is nice to see a very close vote during a financially insecure time,” Windham Central Supervisory Union Superintendent William Anton wrote in an email.

With a combined vote of 218–221, voters in Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend, and Windham defeated the budget for elementary schools serving students in those communities..

The budget for the Leland & Gray Union Middle & High School was approved, 279–245.

Per the district’s articles of agreement, the budget must be presented to voters split along the elementary schools and Leland & Gray. In practice, however, the budget is a unified budget that collectively funds all schools in the district.

This means, that voters must approve both the elementary and Leland & Gray budget articles for the $12,047,731 budget to pass.

“The budget is artificially split due to restrictions in the articles of agreement,” Anton continued. “That can be confusing to voters, as both articles need to be voted in the affirmative for the budget to pass.”

“That being said, I very much appreciate the community’s support for Leland & Gray,” he said. “The Board will regroup and warn another budget for the voters to consider.”

The district serves approximately 546 students across the five towns. The district operates three elementary schools and one middle-high school, Leland & Gray, for grades six through 12.

The budget went through three drafts before going in front of the voters on June 10.

According to Laurie Garland, business manager for the Windham Central Supervisory Union, at the June 1 budget informational meeting, the budget started at $12.6 million. After multiple revisions, the board and staff reduced proposed spending by almost $600,000.

To reduce costs, the board and administration cut all supply lines by 25 percent. They also removed capital improvement money, leaving the building budget with funds for cleaning and some maintenance, but no capital or building improvements, she said.

Compared to the FY20 budget, the final FY21 budget increased by 2.88 percent, she said.

Garland said that the district faced an overall reduction in revenues and an increase in expenses, driving a budget that would have pushed the tax rate above a “tolerable” limit.

In the already-trimmed version of the FY21 budget that was rejected, more than 50 percent would have gone toward direct instruction. The rest would have funded expenses such as food services, student support services, building maintanence, and administration.

Garland explained that the total FY21 budget is $12,047,731, with a cost of spending per equalized pupil of $20,970.

In the Vermont Supreme Court’s historic ruling that rejected school funding by property tax as inherently unequal, the state Department of Taxes applies a formula that takes into account various factors affecting the wealth of students and families within the district.

Some factors include the number of English-language learners, students enrolled in the 3SquaresVT program, school attendance through the year, and poverty statistics.

This per-equalized-pupil figure put the district above the state’s spending threshold, meaning the district would need to pay a penalty, she said. Including the penalty the cost per student increased to $22,457.

WRMUED Board Chair Joe Winrich, who represents Townshend, said that the board has been watching the district’s financial situation.

“We all knew this moment was coming,” he said.

He said that the board had hoped to find some cost containment with the merger. Now that the district has operated for two years, the board has started to pursue a planning process, he said.

The board has organized a series of meetings this summer to look at options for the district in terms of which schools to operate and how many, he said.

So far the planning process has developed eight options that range from no changes to converting some district towns to tuitioning their students instead of maintaining schools.

The budget committee has explored other options, he added. The board hopes that, by August, it will have an option that will support students’ education and reduce costs for the district.

“Give students the education we want to give them and that doesn’t break everybody,” he said. “There are no decisions being made yet, it’s just a conversation.”

Winrich encouraged participation in that discussion.

“It continues for the next couple months, so please chime in,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #566 (Wednesday, June 17, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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