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Barnard Residents Bemoan ‘Inscrutable’ Financing Formula; Budgets Pass

Barnard — Education — its quality, cost and tax impact — dominated discussion at the town and school meeting on Tuesday morning. About 100 people attended the two-hour meeting in the Town Hall.

In a legislative update session led by state Rep. Teo Zagar, D-Barnard, the focus was on what he termed “the elephant in the room — education financing in Vermont.”

Zagar distributed a one-page diagram that attempted to explain the intricacies of Vermont’s Act 68 school funding law. This provoked questions and considerable confusion during the hour-long legislative update session and continued into the official school meeting.

Sara Widness complained that Barnard has “one of the highest per capita education tax” rates in the state but “we are not getting education quality. This poor product is leading us down the path to more drug addiction.”

Zagar countered that “studies show that Vermont is at the top in education achievement,” but added that property taxes supporting education are “alarming … not sustainable and there is no relief in sight.”

He urged the audience to “start a petition to the governor and Legislature to change the system, get more equitable funding mechanisms.”

One audience member asked: “Do the legislators really understand the education financing system?”

Selectboard Chairman Tom Morse said very few people really understand the system. “It is inscrutable,” he said, and “a crime that we stand here and really cannot say what next year’s education tax rate is going to be and the Legislature won’t know until June.”

Mike Webster said one of the basic problems is that Barnard sends about $2 million in tax money annually to the state for distribution to other towns.

Barnard School Board Chairman David Green, a retired certified public accountant, confirmed this. He referred the audience to the “taxes turned over” line item in the annual budget, saying “that is because we live in more expensive houses than some other communities.”

Green said the Barnard Central School has been trying to cut costs by doubling up classes in lower grades, reducing the time of a physical education teacher from two days to one each week. He also said an elementary school consolidation study is underway involving Barnard, Bridgewater, Pomfret and Woodstock.

An audience member questioned the wisdom of cutting back on physical education.

Barnard Central School Principal Ann Koop, daughter-in-law of the late U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, said classes every Friday take regular breaks to get physical exercise. She also noted that Barnard students “do very well on tests” given throughout New England.

The school budget of nearly $1,075,000 for 2014-15 was approved by unanimous voice vote. It includes a 2.8 percent increase from the current year’s spending plan. This will add about 6.7 cents per $100 of property valuation on the school tax rate or $167.50 on a $250,000 home.

In other action, David Green was elected to the Barnard Academy School Board for a three-year term; Jenney Silva will serve the remaining two years of a three-year term; John Snyder won a three-year term as a school director to the Woodstock Union High School District. All were elected by voice vote.

In the Town Meeting portion, participants approved next year’s $1.56 million town budget by unanimous voice vote. This will add roughly 5 cents per $100 of valuation to the municipal tax rate, or $125 on a $250,000 home.

Participants also supported an “advisory” motion to support the fire department’s evolving plans to move its existing quarters on Route 12 to an empty lot next to the Town Hall.

Diane L. Rainey was elected to the town clerk’s post for three years, treasurer for three years, tax collector for three years and delinquent tax collector for one year.

Virginia Nix was elected lister for three years; Rock Webster will serve on the Selectboard for three years; Gerry Frederickson won a term as auditor for three years.

After the meeting, most of the audience filed into the Town Hall kitchen for the traditional lunch of grilled hot dogs, homemade baked beans and Sepp’s Soup — a special chicken and vegetable concoction made by Swiss immigrant Josep (Sepp) Schenker, former owner of the Barnard Inn. The inn’s current chef made the carrot cake. Proceeds from the sale of the food go toward a scholarship fund for two high school seniors from Barnard to be awarded by the Silver Lake Women’s Progressive organization.

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