Hartland voters successfully petition for school budget revote

A document tallying votes for the school budget vote in Hartland, Vt., on April 2, 2024. (Courtesy Town of Hartland)

A document tallying votes for the school budget vote in Hartland, Vt., on April 2, 2024. (Courtesy Town of Hartland)

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-24-2024 9:14 PM

Modified: 04-25-2024 3:13 PM


HARTLAND — The School Board is preparing to warn a budget vote for the third time this year after a successful petition by residents to hold another round of balloting.

On April 2, voters narrowly approved an $11.1 million school budget by a vote of 320-311.

Concerns about low turnout, the close margin of victory and some suspicion about the handwritten tally sheet prompted Hartland residents Randy Shambo, Jr. and Ben Sirois to circulate a petition for a revote. They met the signature threshold of 5% of Hartland’s approximately 2,960 registered voters and brought the petition to the Town Clerk’s office Friday, Shambo said.

“We had an overwhelming amount of support,” he said.

In January, the School Board had warned a proposed budget of $11.5 million for a Town Meeting Day vote. The board later rescinded that spending plan in order to make cuts to try to control tax rate increases. Ultimately, the bottom line was reduced by about half a million dollars.

Shambo said he is concerned that separating the school budget vote from March’s Town Meeting Day resulted in low voter turnout for the school vote.

“Eighteen hundred people voted on Town Meeting Day but for the school budget on April 2nd it was only 631,” Shambo said. (On Town Meeting Day, 809 voters cast ballots on the town budget.)

Although Shambo acknowledged that the School Board had properly warned the delayed meeting date, he said, “a lot of people missed it.”

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Shambo said he opposes the budget approved on April 2 because of the impact that it will have on property taxes, which could increase by close to 30% over last year for property owners who do not qualify for income-based tax rebates. Currently, Vermont households with incomes under $128,000 qualify for income-sensitive property tax adjustments.

Although the percentages vary from year to year, “on average, 65-70% of Hartland residents receive some state payments” that mitigate their tax bills, Hartland lister Stacey Bradley said in an interview Wednesday.

School Board Chairwoman Nicole Buck pointed to a 16% rise in health insurance costs for school staff and the end of COVID-19 related federal funding as pressures on school budgets. But “it’s really the change in property valuation” that is driving the tax increases that worry many voters, she said, and none of those factors are within the control of local school boards.

The board does not plan to make any additional changes to the budget, Buck said.

“From a budgeting standpoint, we chose to cut before the first vote. We have made cuts where we feel that we can. Any further cuts will really hurt our children’s education,” she said.

The board cut two unfilled staff positions in February, along with a playground renovation and the replacement of damaged lockers and furniture.

The petition’s sponsors urged the School Board could be more transparent and fiscally responsible.

“I hope the School Board can trim some of the fat off the budget and make sure that taxpayers can afford it,” Shambo said Wednesday.

He suggested that staffing is one area that might be trimmed at Hartland Elementary School. “There are two gym teachers and only one gym. Eighty-eight staff members is too much,” he said.

If Hartland is unable to pass a budget by the beginning of the new fiscal year on July 1, the district will be required to operate on 87% of this year’s budget.

“I don’t know how we can operate a school under those circumstances,” she said

Another concern about the April 2 ballot results emerged last Friday when Shambo and Sirois brought their petition to the town clerk’s office. There, they asked to look at the ballots and the hand tally sheet where election workers record the number of votes.

“I realized that on the town tally sheet there were two numbers that appeared to be written over,” Shambo said. “They were 27s that had been changed to 22s.”

At that point, they requested a recount, but the 10-day window for requesting a recount had passed.

“I believe everything was done on the up and up,” Shambo said. “I hope it was, but on face value there are questions.”

Hartland Town Clerk John Paulette stands by the vote count, but also supports the right of residents to challenge election results.

“They are doing what they believe is in the best interest of the town,” Paulette said Wednesday. “Any time we have the chance to make our government prove itself, that’s a win.”

Paulette said that the ballots are counted by hand in stacks of 50 and then the election workers switch places and count again, matching the ballots against the total number of voters on the entrance checklist.

“The corrections are something I would expect to see,” he said, as the numbers are reconciled and corrections made.

Buck was disappointed by the suggestion that there was any sort of malfeasance with the vote counting.

“I have utter faith in the people in Hartland who did the counting. These are people who have been volunteering for the community for 30 years and it’s disheartening and insulting and sad” to see them “under attack,” she said.

Paulette noted that the vote counting process is open to the public, and that the town always needs more poll workers.

A date has not yet been set for Hartland’s budget revote, but Buck said that the board plans to make that decision and issue a warning by the end of this week.

Most school budgets in the Upper Valley were approved by voters this year, with the exception of Rivendell’s which was defeated earlier this month. That district has scheduled a revote for June 1 in Orford.

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan@vnews.com or 603-727 -3208.

CORRECTION: On Town Meeting Day in Hartland, 809 voters cast ballots on the town budget, while 631 peop le voted o n the school budget on April 2. The number of people who voted by ballot on Town Meeting Day was incorrect in a story in Wednesday’s Valley News about Hartland residents successfully petitioning for a revote on the school budget.