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Royalton Residents Cut School Budget

South Royalton — Pushing back against higher taxes, a gymnasium packed with roughly 350 residents voted last night to cut the school budget for the 2014 school year, overturning the initial budget vote from the March Town Meeting.

The amended $6.0 million budget, which was proposed by resident Sandy Conrad and aims to level-fund the upcoming school year’s spending budget, was passed 193-139 on a paper ballot after two-and-a-half hours of debate.

Although the new budget is only $137,000 less than the previous budget, school board members nonetheless warned last night that the end result could be staff cuts.

“I wouldn’t say 100 percent, but I would be shocked if we didn’t lose personnel,” school board member Geo Honigford said, also mentioning his disappointment in the evening’s results.

“There have been several attempts over the years to cut the budget, and there was a similar reconsideration in 2003 to cut the budget, and it was overwhelmingly defeated.”

The reconsideration was organized by Conrad, who was active along with roughly 20 residents in the weeks following the initial vote in March to bring the budget back before voters.

The initial $6.2 million school spending plan, which was approved at March Town Meeting 60-46, represented a 2.3 percent increase over the current school year’s budget.

During her address to residents and the school board, Conrad argued how financially difficult it was becoming to live in Vermont, particularly for senior citizens on limited incomes.

“I think the children are important,” Conrad said, “but it’s got to be a balanced budget for all members of the community. School spending is out of control on the whole, and every year, the budget just keeps going up and up and up.”

Conrad, who works for Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging, said she works with the elderly on a daily basis, and wants to see that they aren’t “kicked off their land because they can’t afford the rising taxes.”

She said her care for seniors goes back to her childhood, when she would visit her grandmother every Saturday in her elder’s home.

“I love these people,” Conrad said. “I want to see they can stay in place in their old age. We keep educating children, they keep leaving and only the seniors are left. But, pretty soon, there’s not going to be anyone left.”

Although some residents agreed that education is of paramount importance, they also voiced concerns about increasingly higher taxes.

For example, Judy McCullough said her family has lived in Royalton since 1962, and as much as she believes every one deserves the right to a complete education, she “believes it’s time to stop spending.”

“Most of us are struggling,” she said.

As people around her filled chairs, lined the bleachers and looked on quietly, McCullough trembled as she read from a piece of paper.

“We’re getting ourselves deeper and deeper into debt,” she continued. “We should budget our school budgets the way we’re forced to at home: to survive.”

A roar of applause filled the gymnasium.

But there were several others in attendance who opposed the proposed cuts.

Bridgett Taylor, who said she’s lived in Royalton most of her life, said she feels that “the taxes are an investment in this school and the children’s future.”

Her daughter wears hearing aids, she said, and every service the school can provide is helpful.

“Our country was founded on giving every child the right to the same starting line. We need to provide that level of quality education to the children.”

A few students testified to the quality of their school as well, but backers of the budget cut had ready answers.

“I really feel it is an important educational lesson to let them know that it is important to be fiscally responsible,” said Gemmah Stone. Last year, she continued, she delivered surplus CSA food to working people. “The taxes are more than burdensome,” she said.

“It is not that we don’t care,” Stone said, adding that she would be “the first to volunteer” at the school if officials find there are unmet needs.

But the cuts also send a message and are a move toward austerity that could harm the school, others said.

The vote suggests that the school isn’t valued, said Nancy Wuttke, whose daughter is a junior at South Royalton School. “When somebody looks at this vote in the paper, that’s what they’re going to see,” she said.

“To not support this reasonable school budget is to take the momentum in the direction of less-educated Royalton school kids,” said Kathy Hassey. “And when you have that, you are helping ensure there will be more Royalton residents struggling to pay property tax, not less.”

Better education means better careers and better pay, she said.

After the meeting, Conrad said she reflected on the vote.

“The truth of the matter is, I don’t think it’s a victory,” she said of the result. “What it is, I hope, is a step in the direction of us working together to come up with a balance for the people who can’t afford it.

“And I don’t want it to tear the town into sides and I hope they view it as an opportunity to work together instead of against each other.”

After the March vote, the homestead school tax rate was expected to increase 12 cents, to $1.50 per $100 of assessed value.

The tax rate impact of last night’s vote to amend the school budget is unclear at this time.

Zack Peterson can be reached at 603-727-3211 or zpeterson@vnews.com. Alex Hanson contributed to this report.

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