West Windsor Residents Assail School Financing
Just before voters arrive for lunch Fran Cady and Mary Dalton say hello. Both had been helping with lunch that the Brownsville Community Church serves on Town Meeting day. Cady had been cutting pies, she has been a member of the church for over 70 years.
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
Former West Windsor Town Clerk Polly Ouelette helps to count votes for the school budget in West Windsor, Vt., on March, 4, 2014. Ouelette is now a justice of the peace. She and the other JP's, Ted Emerson, Mark Nowlan on the left, and Genevieve Lemire quickly counted out the votes.
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
Molly Keating, with her daughter Julia,7, gets ready to speak at the West Windsor Town Meeting in West Windsor, Vt., on March, 4, 2014. Her voice filled with emotion, Keating talked about her daughter being a special needs student at the school and encouraged voters to pass the school budget.
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
West Windsor — The proposed school budget of $2.6 million passed easily by ballot at Tuesday’s Town Meeting, 113-46, but not before many residents expressed outrage over the rising costs — primarily of special education — and a lack of response on the issue by lawmakers in Montpelier.
During the nearly two hours of discussion on the school budget, several voters called for the school budget to be defeated as a way to “send a message” to Montpelier. But in the end, residents decided to express their displeasure by unanimously supporting a resolution demanding changes to the way special education and other costs are funded across the state.
Winn Johnson drafted the resolution, which said the current funding formula is “unsustainable” and places an “inequitable burden” on the town and must be changed because the “status quo can no longer be tolerated.” Johnson said he, like others, wanted to protest special education costs and the way taxes are calculated, but came to realize rejecting the budget was not the right avenue.
“I don’t think voting down the budget sends the message the way we want to send it,” said Johnson.
Resident Bryce Yordy was the first to suggest voting down the budget. He said the tax rate will have increased over the last three years from $1.16 per $100 of assessed valuation to $1.71 with approval of the proposed budget.
“If this (tax rate) keeps going this way, we are going to be priced out of our homes,” said Yordy. “We need to send a message, and the only way to do that is to vote down the budget. I think it will send a message to Montpelier.”
Yordy said he favored passing the budget eventually, perhaps with a $100 cut, but defeating it first would get the attention of lawmakers.
But many others warned that defeating the budget would get Montpelier’s attention for the wrong reasons.
The state is talking about consolidating smaller schools (Albert Bridge School has 85 students in grades K-6) and defeating the budget would indicate support for consolidation in West Windsor, said outgoing School Board Chairman Erik Schutz.
“That will be the message, that you want to close schools. It will confirm to the governor that consolidation is what you want,” he said.
What angered many is that West Windsor is considered a “sending town” in Vermont and last year collected $3.5 million in school taxes, of which $1.4 million was sent to the state for distribution to other towns.
Another resident, Dave Halpert, warned residents not to believe consolidation would lower costs. “Consolidation will never make up the costs of special education,” he said.
Parent Molly Keating, whose husband, Art, is on the School Board, reminded the board that the ski resort is no longer operating and closing the school would mean a loss of families and a change in the town.
“If we give that up, think about where we will be in five or 10 years,” said Keating, with her arms around her first-grade daughter, who receives special education services.
The budget increases spending by $190,000 from this year, with $118,000 of that going to special education costs, which are projected to rise 37 percent to $441,000. The budget is projected to add 22 cents to the homestead tax rate and $550 in school taxes to a home assessed at $250,000.
No one questioned the need for or benefit of special education services, only the way they are paid for. The resolution approved by voters will be sent not only to lawmakers but to selectboards across the state and to Vermont’s congressional delegation.
Resident Elvin Kaplan said the resolution tells Montpelier to find “a more equitable way to fund special education.” State Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, who was on hand for the discussion with other area lawmakers, said they received the message. “Your concerns are not new to us,” said Sweaney, promising to deliver the resolution to lawmakers.
After the school vote, residents moved quickly through the town warning with only brief discussion. They passed by voice vote the entire town warning in about 45 minutes, including a combined general fund and highway budget of about $1 million, and 10 other separate appropriations of $106,000.
Among the larger amounts were $46,000 for the volunteer fire department, $25,000 for the equipment fund, $14,000 for the library, $8,500 for the town forest fund and $9,000 for 11 different organizations that provide a variety of services, including visiting nurses, health care and rehabilitation and youth programs.
The $10,000 approved for 911 signage will allow the town to purchase house numbers to make it easier for emergency personnel to find a location. Those who fail to put up the numbers face a fine under an ordinance approved by the Selectboard.
Selectboard Chairman Glenn Seward said the budget is up about 3.6 percent from last year, but officials anticipate the town tax rate will not change from the current rate of 40 cents per $100 of assessed valuation with passage of the budget and other appropriations.
Town Clerk and Treasurer Cathy Archibald, Selectboard member Tom Kenyon and Town and School Moderator Matt Birmingham all were re-elected from the floor without opposition, as were other incumbents for first and second constable, Ralph Johnson and Bill Young, and lister Annie Burke. Brett Myers will fill the vacant two-year lister seat.
Bob Young was elected to the School Board to replace Schutz, who did not seek another three-year term.
The meeting lasted 41/2 hours and the turnout of 166 residents was almost 21 percent of the town’s 800 registered voters.