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District #6 school budget passes

Fewer than 1 percent of voters weigh in on $27.7 million spending plan

BRATTLEBORO—Voters of the District #6 school district approved the $27.7 million fiscal year 2015 school budget during the district’s annual meeting on Feb. 11.

Less than 1 percent of eligible voters from the five-member towns attended the annual school meeting in the Brattleboro Union High School gym, a turnout Moderator Tim Arsenault later called “appalling.”

Robert “Woody” Woodworth, District #6 school board chair, said that the school budget maintains services offered in the previous year.

The fiscal year 2015 budget is some $179,000 greater than the previous year’s spending plan.

District #6 includes the towns of Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney, and Vernon. The fiscal year 2015 budget will fund Brattleboro Union High School, Brattleboro Area Middle School, and Windham Regional Career Center.

Of 14,882 registered voters, 86, or nearly six-tenths of 1 percent, attended the budget meeting. Last year, eight-tenths of 1 percent of voters turned out to approve the budget.

“This is a democracy,” Arsenault, known to listeners of WTSA as Tim Johnson, said after the meeting. “Get off your butts and assume your responsibility.”

Money matters

Articles pertaining to money received the most audience attention, and by meeting’s end voters would approve all 14 articles.

Brattleboro Representative Town Meeting Member Billie Stark expressed concern that the school district had a high surplus, a repeat from the previous year.

“Things are tough in this town,” she said. “Things are tough in this economy.”

Stark said that the budget should be level-funded, not level-serviced. With an aim toward level funding, she proposed an amendment to reduce the budget by $178,890.

That amendment failed by a wide margin.

Spoon Agave of Brattleboro asked rhetorically whether the school or town had studied the number of people who had left Brattleboro over cost of living concerns.

For fiscal year 2015, the School Board wanted to use the surplus of just over $941,000 to fund capital expenses, set money aside for future building maintenance, and apply $600,000 toward offsetting the education property tax.

Voters also were asked to approve depositing $191,418 of the surplus into the Education Fund.

Business Administrator James E. Kane explained that state law requires schools apply surplus funds to defray education taxes. Should a district roll over any unassigned fund balance, it would need to deposit that money into an education fund, which Brattleboro established two years ago.

Kane told the audience that the district’s education fund helped level out the spikes sometimes created by Vermont’s education funding laws, Acts 60 and 68.

For years, the state’s base education rate has swung up by one or two pennies. The past few years, the increase has been about 5 cents. For fiscal year 2015, however, the state’s base education rate is expected to jump 7 cents per $100 of assessed value, said Kane.

Voters also approved depositing a portion of the surplus into a capital improvement account.

According to the meeting warning, $150,000 of the surplus would offset future maintenance for the school complex on Old Fairground Road that is home to the high school, middle school, and career center.

Woodworth noted the building’s newest addition is now a decade old. The board said it would be prudent to squirrel away funds for upgrades and repairs.

Former Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray said he thought the budget and corresponding surpluses were unsustainable, and that budgeting should occur at the supervisory union and school board level.

“We’re doing budgeting through voting cards,” said DeGray.

Kane responded that school budgets reflect what expenses the board anticipates — that nothing is easy in a tight economy and ever-changing school environments.

“During extraordinary times, you try to adjust,” said Kane, who is set to retire following 35 years on the job. “Who is to say what’s sustainable?”

According to Kane’s early estimates, the tax for Brattleboro is $1.76 per $100. Compared to last year, the estimated change is less than five cents.

He added Dummerston’s estimate is $1.79, which represents an 8-cent increase over the previous fiscal year, and that Guilford’s education taxes are estimated at $1.92, a decrease of about 2.7 cents. Putney is next with an estimate of $1.77, an increase of 4.4 cents. He said Vernon’s estimated tax is level at $1.17.

“There aren’t many sources of revenue for public schools,” Kane said. “The majority comes from the taxpayers and the state.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #242 (Wednesday, February 19, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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