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Thetford Faces Contested Races

Thetford’s annual Town and School Meetings will take place Saturday, March 1, starting at 9 a.m. in the gymnasium of Thetford Elementary School. On Tuesday, March 4, voters will choose town and school officers and decide on the school-district budget by Australian ballot, with polls opening at Thetford Town Hall at 8 a.m. and closing at 7 p.m.

Thetford — In the privacy of the polling booth on March 4, Thetford residents will decide two election contests — one to the Selectboard, one to the Board of School Directors — and rule on a nearly $8 million school budget that includes one less teacher and one less support employee at the elementary school.

At Town Meeting three days earlier, voters will take on the town’s plan to spend $1.9 million — about $1.7 million of it coming from property taxes — on municipal operations.

Also on March 1, during the School District Meeting, school board members will outline for voters a budget plan that calls for spending about $3,000 less than during the current year, but with property taxpayers shouldering a bigger share. Thetford, like many other school districts, is seeing school taxes go up in part because of an estimated 7-cent increase in the estimated statewide education rate.

School Board Chairwoman Shannon Darrah said that officials expect Thetford’s school tax rate to climb more than 12 cents from $1.75 to slightly more than $1.87 per $100 of assessed valuation. That would mean the owner of a $250,000 property who doesn’t qualify for Vermont’s income sensitivity program would pay more than $4,675 in school taxes if the budget is approved.

“That’s why we’re trying really hard to level-fund this year, to hold the line with finite resources,” Darrah said. “And costs continue to go up. We’re up about 4 ½ percent in health-care costs.”

Dealing with those and other issues — including the district’s arrangement with Thetford Academy, which has its own trustees that sets the academy’s budget as opposed to voters — will fall upon the town’s school board. And the members on that board will change.

Electoral newcomers Lindy Jones and Robert Christiansen are competing for a two-year post on the board, while Julie Acker is running unopposed to fill a vacancy for two years. Meanwhile, incumbent Erin Flynn Sterner is running unopposed for re-election to a three-year seat.

“I’ve been very pleased with Thetford education,” said Jones, a 14-year Thetford resident whose two children both attended Thetford Elementary and Thetford Academy, the younger now a junior at the secondary school. “I want to give back to my community.”

Citing annual calls from some taxpayers to “de-designate” Thetford Academy as the high school for town children in grades 7-12, Jones said, “I like the arrangement that we have. It serves the community really well, and serves the children really well. (Under de-designation), ultimately that would leave us with less control over our tax dollars.”

For his part, Christensen — whose son attends first grade at Thetford Elementary and whose daughter will start there next year — said that he’s been following with interest a debate on the Thetford online listserv about the fairness to taxpayers of the Thetford Academy arrangement.

“People have been asking a lot of questions,” said Christensen, who works in commercial lending at Ledyard National Bank. “There are still a lot out there. People, I think, generally speaking, are pretty happy about the elementary school. I think they get a good education there.”

Christensen added that his experience as treasurer and a board member of the private Maple Leaf Children’s Center in Thetford would add depth of experience to the school board.

“It’s good to have a wide variety of folks,” he concluded.

Selectboard Seat Races

While Jones and Christensen, both electoral newcomers, compete for the school-director position, former part-time Thetford patrolman Wayne Briggs is challenging incumbent John Bacon for a three-year seat on the Selectboard.

“I was right on the fence (about seeking re-election),” Bacon, a retired pipefitter, said recently. “It was a hard decision. But there are a few things coming up that I want to see through, including a big recycling center. That’s going to be a big move this summer, I hope.”

Briggs, who served on the Thetford police force between 2006 and 2012 and now works for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, last ran for town office in 2011 — a Selectboard election that Casey Huling won by a count of 305-110.

“John’s a good man,” Briggs said of Bacon recently. “He’s put a lot of good years of services into the town. But it’s time for a change. It’s time to get some different perspectives on things.”

Briggs said that if elected, he would focus in part on such police-department issues as supplying cruisers with up-to-date equipment, and that “I would like to revisit” the town’s contract with the Thetford police union if he is elected.

“I can be a help, having been in the department,” Briggs said. “I have a better understanding of what the department needs.”

In addition to the Bacon-Briggs race, Jessica Eaton is running unopposed for a two-year seat on the Selectboard.

The current board is proposing a municipal budget that, counting separate articles on the Town Meeting warning, calls for overall spending to rise to $1,913,302 from $1,890,058. Out of that total, the town is seeking $1.1 million from property taxpayers for general operations and $616,218 for public-works expenses.

Thanks to growth in non-tax revenues, and to lower requests overall for money in the articles on the warning, Selectboard Chairman Donn Downey said, the overall spending package would raise the municipal tax rate by less than 1 percent.

At the current rate of 55 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, the owners of a home valued at $250,000 are paying about $1,375.

Downey added that some of the budget increases include an extra $7,000 for energy retrofit work to Town Hall, “hoping to reduce consumption,” some $20,000 in contract pay raises and other monetary benefits in the police department, and $20,000 to hire more help for the Recreation Department.

“This is because of the summer camp program, which has grown exponentially over the past two years,” Downey said of the recreation budget. “Those wage increases are lar gely offset by summer-camp registration fees.”

In addition to the town’s regular operating budget, the warning for the March 1 Town Meeting asks voters to add $115,000 to the Public Works Capital Equipment Fund and $74,850 to the Fire Capital Equipment Fund.

The town also is seeking voter approval to transfer $38,793 from the Highway Fund to the Route 132 Bridge Fund.

On the March 4 ballot, along with the school budget, the School District is asking voters for permission to create a public preschool program for 2014-2015, paid for entirely by grant money.

David Corriveau can be reached at dacorriveau@gmail.com.

CORRECTION

Thetford Selectboard candidate Wayne Briggs intends to "revisit" the town's contract with the Thetford police union if he is elected. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the contract that Briggs, a former member of the police department, proposes to re-examine.