Marlboro, Halifax, Whitingham, and Wilmington all approved joining into a regional broadband initiative called a communications union district at their respective Annual Town Meetings on March 3.
The new CUD will be called the Deerfield Valley Communications Union District.
The Legislature created these districts several years ago. CUDs have the ability to borrow money and operate similar to other municipal districts such as water districts or waste management districts.
If successful, the regional broadband project would bring fiber-optic broadband services to historically underserved communities.
To form a communications union district, two or more towns must approve creating the district through their respective Town Meeting votes.
Once formed, the district becomes a separate entity run by a board of directors in charge of developing a funding plan.
Tristan Roberts, chair of Halifax's Broadband Committee, urged voters to approve joining the CUD.
“The goal is to get fiber to every address in town,” he said.
These districts will allow communities to form a consortium and “bootstrap” their own fiber-broadband services to every home, similar to the creation of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, Roberts said.
Under that federal legislation, loans were released to aid in the creation of electric systems in isolated areas of the country.
According to Roberts, “We are the lowest of the low in Windham County in terms of broadband service.”
Approximately 1 percent of homes in Halifax have high-speed internet, he said. Half of the homes are underserved, according to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) standards.
The town has 600 households and 70 miles of roads, Roberts continued. That low population density is problematic for most commercial internet companies.
Now that more than two towns have approved creating the Deerfield Valley Communications Union District, they will work with the Windham Regional Commission to create a feasibility study and develop a business plan.
Education funding at issue
The results of the Pupil Weighting Study and the changes it could mean for education funding are sinking in to the Deerfield Valley communities.
On Tuesday, many voters seemed to have passed the shocked stage and entered into full outrage.
According to recommendations in the 150-page Pupil Weighting Factors Report, submitted to the Legislature in December, the state needs to adjust how it calculates the cost of educating students.
The report's findings show that Vermont's education-funding formula has led to inequities for some of the state's vulnerable children.
In 1997 the state Supreme Court ruled in the Brigham decision that Vermont's education-funding system was “constitutionally deficient” because it denied students equal access to educational opportunities: Wealthier towns could afford more. Poorer towns could not.
The Legislature created Act 60, designing it to remedy those deficiencies through a statewide funding formula intended to smooth out those inequities, turning actual numbers of pupils in each town into “equalized pupil count,” assigning more state funding to municipalities by pretending there are more students to educate.
According to the study, however, the formula has flaws.
A couple of the findings pointed to the formula's weights that make up the a school district's equalized pupil count don't provide enough weight for students in poverty, English-language learners, and students in low-population areas.
As a result, according to the study, some more densely populated or wealthier areas have underpaid their share of education taxes, at the expense of other rural or poor communities that have overpaid.
If the Legislature decides to implement the study's recommendations, most of the towns in Windham County could see a drop in their education-tax rate.
Marlboro faces 'severe cuts'
Marlboro is one of the towns that could benefit from the recommendations in the weighting study.
At Annual Town Meeting, its School Board presented a $3,066,776 fiscal year 2021 budget. This budget represented an increase in spending of 9 percent compared to the current fiscal year and a 30-cent increase in the homestead education tax rate.
Despite voters passing the general fund budget at $275,000, many in the audience experienced sticker shock.
Increases in the budget were due to health insurance increases, staffing, and either the loss of or decrease in other funding such as grants.
Member of the Marlboro School Board provided information for residents to contact their representatives and lobby on behalf of implementing the weighting study recommendations.
Without these changes, the board will need to consider “severe cuts” to the school budget next year, said Board Chair Douglas Korb.
Currently, Marlboro School is an independent school district that offers pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Korb said that the board did not consider merging with another district, but if expenses keep increasing, “we'll have to do a lot of things.”
One skeptical resident said, “You're counting on the Legislature to change stuff it hasn't changed in 20 years.”
A woman in the audience said that her income had gone down that year and her health insurance premiums had increased.
“This is killing us, and something's got to give at some point,” she said.
T. Wilson noted that despite the fact that Marlboro probably overpaid in its education taxes, if the new weights had been implemented earlier, the state probably wouldn't reimburse the town.
Korb responded, “This is the start of the outrage.”
After a few angry comments, Town Moderator Steven John said, “Voting on your displeasure isn't part of this motion.”
The budget passed as presented, 88 to 29.
Voters briefly discussed the weighting study with Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, when she stopped by to provide a legislative update.
Some audience members asked: Will the study's recommendations be made law?
Sibilia answered that if the Legislature doesn't implement the new student weights, then the state will face lawsuits.
“The lawsuits are being prepped,” she said. “So the Legislature can do it now, or we can have the court tell us to in a couple of years.”
Whitingham voters also approved their general fund budget, at $581,945.
Wilmington: treasurer becomes appointed position
Voters passed all the money articles including several related to capital improvements and the General Fund of $2,155,219.
Two questions about changing previously elected officials to appointed staff came before voters. The voters defeated an article to make the Town Clerk an appointed position but approved giving the Selectboard the authority to appoint a town treasurer.
Dover: Voters approve $2.1m budget
Town Clerk Andy McLean said that in Dover, all 18 articles passed as warned - except the library budget, which needed to be amended because of an accounting error.
Voters approved a General Fund of $2,105,244.12.
While Dover did not put the question of entering into a Communications Union District on the meeting warning, McLean said the Selectboard has asked residents to fill out the Windham Regional Commission's broadband survey.
At the end of Town Meeting, the board also discussed the importance of this year's census. Board members stressed that without a proper count, the region might not receive the federal and state resources it needs.
Representatives of the federal government have told the Selectboard that it won't mail census forms to Dover. Instead, residents need to be on the lookout for census takers going door to door.