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School Budget Up 8.5% in Bethel

Bethel Town Meeting is scheduled for March 5, at 10 a.m. in Bethel Town Hall. The School District Meeting is scheduled for March 5 at 7 p.m., also in the Town Hall.

Bethel — At an eventful Town Meeting last year, residents voted out an incumbent selectman and declined to adjourn the meeting until town officials heard their complaints about officials’ response to Tropical Storm Irene.

The same dynamic might be at work this year, said Selectboard Chairman Neal Fox, who faces a challenge from political newcomer Carl Russell in his bid for a fifth two-year term.

Voters will also weigh slight increases in town spending and a significant increase in school spending attributable to higher teacher pay. The town portion of the property tax rate is expected to remain flat, officials said, while the residential rate on the school side would climb by 3 cents, to nearly $1.53 per $100 of assessed value.

That would increase the tax bill on a $200,000 home by $60, although Vermont’s school funding law caps the state tax liability at a percentage of income for households with income of $97,000 or less. For Bethel, next year that cap would be 3.15 percent.

If they approve the $1.5 million town budget and all of the other spending on the warning, taxpayers would authorize a $70,000 increase in spending, a little more than 4 percent over the current year’s budget. That increase is largely due to a request for $49,000 to install a generator at Whitcomb High School, a request for $5,000 to supplement the recreation facility improvement fund and a $5,500 increase in the appropriation for White River Valley Ambulance. The generator funding is a one-to-one match for federal Homeland Security money. Installing a generator is meant to turn the high school into a more suitable emergency shelter.

Spending at Bethel’s pre-K-through-12 school system would increase by 8.5 percent. Higher pay for teachers, who have been working without a contract since July 1, is the primary driver of higher costs. Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union, which oversees public education in Bethel, Stockbridge, Rochester, Pittsfield, Granville and Hancock, and the supervisory union’s teachers declared a second impasse in October.

“We’re negotiating right now, so we don’t know where salaries will come in, but that’s the biggest part of our budget,” said Kristin Lafromboise, chairwoman of the Bethel School Board.

“We had to budget what we thought our target would be,” she added.

Teacher pay in the supervisory union is among the lowest in central Vermont, particularly for new hires. A new teacher in Windsor Northwest earns around $30,000, while other districts in the area pay $36,000 to nearly $40,000. The supervisory union board wants to increase starting salaries by 25 percent for the 2015-15 school year, to $37,665, the board said in a written statement when negotiations broke off in October.

“We’ve got some fantastic new teachers,” Lafromboise said. “We just want to pay competitively and fairly for the jobs they’re doing.”

Negotiations are slated to resume March 6, said Carl Groppe, chairman of the supervisory union board. Groppe noted that the board’s offer to teachers is 1.5 percent higher than the recommendation of an independent factfinder’s report issued last summer, and includes pay increases for teachers of all levels of experience and seniority.

Bethel has had greater success recently in bolstering its school enrollments, partly by bringing in more high school tuition students. That revenue explains why a spending increase of 8.5 percent translates to a tax rate increase of only 3 cents per $100 of valuation.

At last year’s meetings, the school budget was a footnote and the defeat of longtime Selectman Bill Richards by challenger Bill Hall was the main text.

Fox, who like Richards has served for 12 years, said discontent at town officials’ response after the Aug. 28, 2011 flooding from Irene hasn’t subsided.

While town officials did yeoman’s work addressing the town’s devastated infrastructure, they made headlines for turning out of Town Hall a group of volunteers who were trying to help the dozens of residents whose homes were left uninhabitable.

“It’s just human nature to never forget what went wrong,” said Fox, who served in the Army for nearly three decades, retiring as a colonel. He owned several insurance companies in Vermont and for the past five years has been president of White River Valley Ambulance.

Fox said he was talked into running for a fifth term. He noted that he is the lone long-serving member of the board and that it wouldn’t make sense to cast him out as the flood recovery continues.

“We have probably close to 70 claims still pending with (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and (the Vermont League of Cities and Towns) insurance,” he said, adding that “it’s just a bad time to be switching horses.”

Challenger Carl Russell is a forestry consultant, an organic farmer and a logger who uses horses to power his operation. He serves on the boards of nonprofits White River Partnership and Rural Vermont. He was also a founding member of the Bethel Conservation Commission and was on the board of the Bethel Royalton Solid Waste board.

“I live a conservation lifestyle, and will bring a critical eye to town fiscal responsibilities,” Russell said in a written statement. “I also bring an open mind and the desire to involve others, working across political and cultural lines, to find collaboration when looking for solutions.”

He said he’d like to foster a more open leadership style on the Selectboard. “The tenet that I subscribe to is that all voices need to be heard and that respect and cooperation are the organizing guidelines,” he said in an interview.

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