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Blue Mountain Searches for ‘Yes’ on Budget

Vermont District Sets 4th Vote Amid Residents’ Silent Revolt

Wells River — A year ago, it took three votes before voters in the Blue Mountain Union School District approved a budget.

This year, residents of Wells River, Groton and Ryegate have voted down the proposed budget three times, putting school officials, teachers and parents in limbo.

“The budget is more than just a financial issue,” district Superintendent Richard Pike said at a meeting last week. “This is becoming an emotional issue for everyone.”

The small district’s struggle to enact a budget for its pre-K-to-12 school is an example of a statewide voter revolt that rejected 35 school budgets at annual meetings in March.

The subsequent votes at Blue Mountain have taken place in an atmosphere of relative quiet. At a meeting last Wednesday evening, the district’s nine-member school board set a fourth vote for May 22, with a public hearing at 8 the evening before at the school. About 25 people attended the budget meeting last week, but none spoke against the budget or said the district’s spending was too high. All the talking has happened at the ballot box.

“I’m pretty concerned that there’s a lot of really mad people out in the community and I don’t see them,” said Amy Emerson, a preschool teacher at Blue Mountain.

The district sent out a survey and board members considered waiting a week to study the responses before setting a fourth vote, but opted to move ahead.

While the public had an opportunity to weigh in on the budget, the board deliberated in private last Wednesday, citing the need to be able to discuss personnel. When they returned from their private conversation, board members approved unanimously, and without further discussion, the same budget total of just under $8 million that voters rejected on April 23, the most recent vote.

“The board still believes that the approved budget on May 7 with no additional cuts is the one that offers the best opportunity for providing students with a quality education without compromising program and learning opportunities,” Pike said. “The real defining moments came at the April 21 and 28 meetings, when BMU students shared their concerns about their college application requirements and possibly the need to transfer to another high school.”

While there doesn’t seem to be an organized effort to sink the budget, it seems likely that residents are still smarting from the discovery in 2012 of a $352,239 deficit. The current year’s budget, which included the deficit payment, was approved by only 16 votes, out of 654 cast.

“It was a tough winter for all of us, and I think that weighed on people,” School Board Chairman Bruce Stevens said. Paying off the deficit was painful for all concerned.

Discharging the debt meant the school cut 7.5 positions and put off needed purchases of supplies and technology. The School Board initially proposed a 2015 budget of $8.2 million that included 6.1 of the 7.5 “full-time equivalents” (5.3 in teaching, 0.6 in custodial and 0.2 in psychology) that had been cut the year before.

“There was not any attempt to put everything back in,” Stevens said. “This is still a pretty lean budget.”

The proposed budget adds money for middle school and elementary school instruction and also includes an assistant principal position that was cut for this year and an accounting clerk for the superintendent’s office, said Lori Blood, the district’s business manager.

Although the board has cut a little more than $240,000 from the budget as first proposed, voters have already approved a package of building improvements. The first payment, included in the proposed budget last week, adds $64,000 to the bottom line.

Even with the cuts, many property owners will see a tax increase, and for some it will be significant. In Groton, the estimated homestead tax rate on primary residential property will go up an estimated 14 cents per $100 of assessed value. That’s $280 on a home assessed at $200,000. In Ryegate, the tax rate increase is a more modest 4 cents, while in Wells River, an incorporated village in the town of Newbury, the increase is 6 cents.

But under the income sensitivity provisions of Vermont’s school funding law, households with incomes under $97,000 pay education taxes based on their income. In the Blue Mountain Union district, the percentage of income paid by those households is expected to rise only slightly, from 2.86 percent to 2.95 percent. That means a household with an income of $40,000 would pay an additional $36 to support the school.

The small increase in the tax share of working- and middle-class families masks a steady escalation in cost per pupil at Blue Mountain. A state analysis shows a steady climb from around $12,500 per equalized pupil in fiscal year 2012 to an estimated $15,000 in fiscal year 2015.

School enrollments are declining in Vermont and New Hampshire, and in Vermont’s school funding formula per pupil cost is the basis for a school district’s property tax rates. This is a major reason why so many districts saw their budgets go down to defeat.

So far, 17 of the 35 school districts that voted down budgets in March have since approved a spending plan, Vermont Public Radio reported. Several others will go before voters today.

Should Blue Mountain’s budget fail again on May 22, the district will find itself in a tight spot. Without a budget, school officials can’t issue contracts to teachers or set a schedule for next year, in part because if no budget is passed, the school would operate on borrowed funding and a diminished contribution from the state.

Amid the uncertainty of whether all staff will be retained, the district could also lose teachers to jobs in other districts that seem more stable, school officials said.

Worse, the school is counting on revenue from tuition students. Without a budget, Blue Mountain officials will likely have to make cuts, which could drive some of those tuition students away, further cutting into the district’s revenue.

“Our kids are probably going to be going to Oxbow,” Bernadette Smith, a South Ryegate resident with high school age children, told the School Board. Blue Mountain has long had a school choice agreement with Oxbow Union High School in Bradford. “I know what they can get down there that unfortunately they can’t get here anymore,” Smith added.

Foreign language was cut to part-time last year, Principal Emilie Knisley said, and so far the school hasn’t been able to find a full-time Spanish teacher, a position in next year’s budget. Electives have also been cut back.

“If we can pass a budget, the situation for our high school students will be much better than it is this year,” Knisley said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.