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Oxbow budget defeated, Rivendell passes amid worries about virus, economy, Act 46

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/1/2020 9:44:15 PM
Modified: 7/1/2020 9:44:07 PM

BRADFORD, Vt. — Officials say frustration with Vermont’s school consolidation effort and economic worries stemming from the coronavirus pandemic combined to bring down another school district budget this week.

The Oxbow Unified Union School District saw its proposed $17.6 million spending plan defeated, 520-323, in Australian ballot voting Tuesday.

School officials say they’re already working to craft a new budget, with a revote expected sometime later this summer. The district is made up of Bradford, Newbury, Oxbow Union High School and the River Bend Technical Center.

Danielle Corti, a Newbury resident and the school board’s chairwoman, said residents aren’t seeing the savings promised under Act 46, the state’s school merger law, and many argue rising administrative costs are no longer sustainable.

“It was definitely touted that there would be a cost-saving piece to it or that the communities would see efficiencies,” she said of the 2015 law that led to the formation of the new Oxbow district last year.

“So, when we go through the merger and are hit with two years of increases — and those increases seem to be at the administrative level and not based on the direct services being provided to students — the community really feels frustrated with that,” Corti added.

On top of those concerns, residents are feeling the economic pressures of COVID-19 and may not be able to sustain a tax increase, she said.

Oxbow’s budget proposal amounted to a $953,000, or nearly 6%, increase over the current year’s spending plan and included additional money for health care, new math and literacy programs, and a 3% increase in salaries.

Supervisory union costs also were expected to rise because of the addition of the Blue Mountain Union School District to Orange East and the supervisory union’s move to new offices in downtown Bradford.

Tuesday’s vote adds Oxbow to a growing list of Upper Valley school districts that have failed to pass a budget on the first try this year.

Last month, the First Branch Unified School District — which consists of Chelsea and Tunbridge — saw its budget defeated for a second time. And Strafford required a revote to secure its $3.35 million budget.

Voters in both communities have questioned the efficacy of Act 46, with some in Strafford even mulling whether to cut ties with its supervisory union.

Rivendell vote

Farther south, similar questions have bubbled up in the Rivendell Interstate School District, which merged in the 1990s and also held a budget revote Tuesday.

Residents of that district’s four towns — Orford, Fairlee, West Fairlee and Vershire — voted, 583-538, to pass the School Board’s $11.87 million budget.

The new budget is projected to result in an 11.7% increase in Fairlee’s property tax rate, while West Fairlee’s rate will grow by 2.2%, and Vershire will see its taxes go up 5.1%. Officials say many residents are eligible for Vermont’s income sensitivity program, which would soften the blow by capping property taxes 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, is also a major factor in the tax rate increase in Fairlee, school officials argue.

In Orford, the tax rate is set to decrease by nearly 1%.

Tuesday’s vote comes after school officials trimmed nearly $500,000 from an earlier plan that drew the ire of voters and was defeated, 484-349, in May.

At the time, opponents complained that they were being asked to foot tax increases during an economic downturn. Some argued that the district should trim administrative costs or reconsider closing one of Rivendell’s three schools.

Also at issue was a roughly $400,000 deficit attributed to maintenance costs and past accounting mistakes.

School Board members said they wouldn’t consider structural changes to Rivendell’s schools mid-pandemic and instead cut support staff positions, canceled summer programs and opted to forgo new books and supplies.

School Board Vice Chairwoman Kathy Hooke applauded voters who cast ballots either via mail or at the polls Tuesday.

“I slept well last night for the first time in weeks, maybe months,” she said in an email. “It is a huge relief to have a budget in place for the July 1 start of our fiscal year so that our administrators and staff can turn their full attention to the hard work of preparing for the fall.”

Orford tree farmer Tom Thomson, a critic of the earlier budget, said he was disappointed in Tuesday’s vote. He said school officials should have considered larger cuts, adding that they “just nibbled around the edges” before presenting a new plan.

“We can’t lose sight of what we’ve been going through the last six months with this pandemic,” he said, adding that many workers and small businesses are hurting. “The last thing they need right now is a double-digit tax increase from their school system.”

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




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