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Rivendell school district voters reject budget that hiked tax rates as much as 17%

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/27/2020 9:19:20 PM
Modified: 6/8/2020 2:36:44 PM

ORFORD — Concerns about rising education costs, an unexpected deficit and the stalled economy led voters to reject the Rivendell Interstate School District’s budget this week.

In voting on Tuesday, residents in Orford, Fairlee, West Fairlee and Vershire voted, 484-349, to defeat the School Board’s $12.3 million budget proposal, rebuffing plans to increase spending by nearly 10%.

The budget vote, postponed from its regular March floor meeting because of the coronavirus, came at a bad time for many families who have seen hits to their own finances in recent months, according to Orford tree farmer Tom Thomson.

While the budget proposal sought to pay off a $400,000 deficit attributed to maintenance costs and past accounting mistakes, it also attempted to maintain staffing levels and programs. Because spending went down for the school year that is about to end, some School Board members argued that the net effect of their proposal would have been about a 5% spending increase between the 2018-19 and 2020-21 school year.

But to many, it seemed like voters were being asked to approve a double standard — being forced to trim their own expenses while increasing funding for the schools, Thomson, a critic of the school district’s spending plan, said Wednesday.

“They want more money and they’ve got fewer students but there’s no (cuts to) staff or other members on the payroll,” he said in a phone interview.

Rivendell School Board member Katherine Blanchard also attributed the budget’s defeat to a combination of economic factors, saying some voters expressed “shock and awe” on first hearing of potential tax increases.

Fairlee residents would have seen a 17% increase in property taxes, though many are eligible for Vermont’s income sensitivity program, which would have softened the blow. Meanwhile, West Fairlee’s tax rate would have increased by 7.3% and Vershire’s rate would be up about 10.3%.

However, school officials argued that few households pay the full tax rate. In Vermont, most residents have their property taxes capped by income.

The common level of appraisal, a method of ensuring that each town in Vermont is paying its fair share to the state’s Education Fund, was also a major factor in the tax rate increase in Fairlee.

In Orford, where property taxes are the largest contributor to school funding, the tax rate would have increased 3.3% increase.

“I think people are feeling generally anxious about the economic situation in our country and our world, and so it’s hard to vote for anything that’s going to cost you a penny more than you think it should,” Blanchard said.

She added that the switch from a traditional floor meeting to Australian ballot voting may also have led to confusion. As a result, voters didn’t hear the School Board’s annual budget presentation right before voting, though two were held earlier through teleconferencing software, Blanchard said, echoing arguments made in other communities against paper ballots.

“By doing a total write-in vote, that makes it very easy for people who are less connected to the district and less informed about why their taxes are going up ... to vote against it,” she said.

School Board Vice Chairwoman Kathy Hooke said officials knew going into the election that passing the budget could be a “heavy lift,” partially because the spending plan would pay off a deficit accumulated over several years.

The district’s buildings and grounds budget was overspent this year by about $200,000 in an effort to reverse years of deferred maintenance, while a $500,000 shortfall dates back to an accounting error in the 2018-19 school year.

“When we were heading into annual meeting as we always know it, we thought ‘We’ll be able to explain that to people. They’ll get it,’ ” she said. “And then everything changed (with the COVID-19 pandemic), and it changed literally three days before our annual meeting.”

Regardless of the outcome, officials lauded poll workers and town clerks, who spent hours Tuesday night collecting and counting ballots.

The vote, which was held through mail-in and Australian ballot voting, saw 839 ballots cast, the most ever counted in a Rivendell election, according to district officials.

Town clerks mailed applications for absentee ballots ahead of the vote. They also allowed for two hours of in-person voting at Rivendell Academy on Tuesday night. Rivendell Moderator David Hooke, Kathy Hooke’s husband, said about 50 people showed up to vote in person. People could also drop off completed ballots in a drive-thru lane.

“It certainly paid off in the sense that we made it easy for people and kept people safe,” he said.

It’s unclear how the School Board will react to Tuesday’s vote. Both Hooke and Blanchard said they haven’t yet discussed next steps. Emails and messages left for School Board Chairman Marc DeBois and Superintendent Barrett Williams were not returned Wednesday.

However, some say the district should take a hard look at how it provides education.

Thomson says one of Rivendell’s two elementary schools should close to contain costs, an idea floated two years ago by district officials but later abandoned.

Orford accountant Mark Burger, one of the School District’s elected auditors who in an interview spoke favorably of the proposed budget, said Wednesday that enrollment is projected to drop to 433 students next year, but the buildings themselves were designed for 700 students.

“Do the four communities want to try to increase enrollment? And to do that, you need to have housing stock for families,” he said. “There’s got to be a candid conversation about encouraging families with school-age children to move into the district.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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