In second try, Rivendell voters approve reduced school budget

Jennifer Botzojorns, interim superintendent of the Rivendell Interstate School District and interim principal for Rivendell Academy, in green at center, and Sara Rose, principal of the Westshire Elementary School, right, react to voters passing the school budget on Saturday, June 1, 2024 in Orford, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jennifer Botzojorns, interim superintendent of the Rivendell Interstate School District and interim principal for Rivendell Academy, in green at center, and Sara Rose, principal of the Westshire Elementary School, right, react to voters passing the school budget on Saturday, June 1, 2024 in Orford, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — Jennifer Hauck

Paired in groups of two, Supervisor of the Checklist Jane Hebb, of Orford, N.H., left;  Town Clerk Staci Sargent, of West Fairlee, Vt.; Board of Civil Authority member Reva Seybolt, of Vershire, Vt.; and Lister Noel Walker, of Fairlee, Vt., count votes for the proposed Rivendell Interstate School District budget on Saturday, June 1, 2024 in Orford. The budget passed. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Paired in groups of two, Supervisor of the Checklist Jane Hebb, of Orford, N.H., left; Town Clerk Staci Sargent, of West Fairlee, Vt.; Board of Civil Authority member Reva Seybolt, of Vershire, Vt.; and Lister Noel Walker, of Fairlee, Vt., count votes for the proposed Rivendell Interstate School District budget on Saturday, June 1, 2024 in Orford. The budget passed. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

An Orford voter drops his ballot into the box during Rivendell Interstate School District voting on Saturday, June 1, 2024 in Orford, N.H. Voters approved the $15.3 million budget. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

An Orford voter drops his ballot into the box during Rivendell Interstate School District voting on Saturday, June 1, 2024 in Orford, N.H. Voters approved the $15.3 million budget. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Rivendell Interstate School District voters Heide and Porter Miller, of Orford, N.H., wait while others vote during the district's meeting on Saturday, June 1, 2024 in Orford. Voters approved a budget of $15.3 million on Saturday, after rejecting a different budget proposal in April. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Rivendell Interstate School District voters Heide and Porter Miller, of Orford, N.H., wait while others vote during the district's meeting on Saturday, June 1, 2024 in Orford. Voters approved a budget of $15.3 million on Saturday, after rejecting a different budget proposal in April. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-02-2024 5:01 PM

ORFORD — Voters approved Rivendell Interstate School District’s $15.3 million budget, 189-142, in paper balloting Saturday morning.

By floor vote and in quick succession, voters also allocated $100,000 from an unassigned fund balance to offset tax rates, and $50,000 to a repairs and maintenance reserve. By the time Moderator David Hooke arrived at the final article allowing for any additional business, most of the crowd of about 300 had already left the Rivendell Academy gymnasium in Orford.

The budget approval comes following the rejection by voters from the district’s four member towns of Fairlee, West Fairlee, Vershire, and Orford of a $15.7 million budget, 240-143, at the district’s annual meeting in April.

“I’m ecstatic,” Rivendell School Board Chairman Mark Avery, a Fairlee resident and owner of Lake Morey Resort, said after Saturday’s meeting. “We can get down to business and focus on students again.”

The district has just over 400 students at three schools: Westshire Elementary School in West Fairlee, Samuel Morey Elementary School in Fairlee and Orford’s Rivendell Academy, which serves grades 6-12.

Following voters’ rejection of the budget in April, the board and administration eliminated vacant positions, reduced some administrative staff hours and made spending cuts to several programs, including the library and health services.

The savings came to about $426,000.

In spite of the cuts, a few residents expressed continued opposition to the budget on Saturday.

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“I personally don’t see any significant changes that you made,” John Durgin, of Fairlee, told the board, stating that he would not vote for the budget.

Morris Austin, of West Fairlee, acknowledged that the board had lowered the budget for this vote, but thought that it could do more. “It’s not enough for the person that’s living paycheck to paycheck. And taxes just keep going up.”

Avery pushed back at that comment. “Your property taxes are going down this year, so I don’t necessarily agree with your statement,” he said.

The tax rate information presented by the board at the beginning of the meeting showed a West Fairlee tax rate of $1.81 per $100 of assessed property value, which is a roughly 19% decrease from last year’s rate of $2.24.

Tax rates for Vershire are expected to decrease 7%, though that number is subject to change following a townwide reappraisal completed in April. In Fairlee, the rate is expected to dip about 19%; and in Orford the rate is expected to be roughly flat with a 0.7% increase.

The board also heard a few voices in favor of passing the budget.

“No is not a solution,” Fairlee resident Danielle Allen said, asking the board to explain to the attendees the repercussions of voting down the budget.

The district would have to borrow the money necessary to operate, at a limit of 87% of this year’s budget, Rivendell Business Manager Nancy Murphy told the audience.

“We’d have to continue to vote until we have an approved budget,” she added.

Rivendell has endured some leadership challenges this year with the unexpected February departure of Rivendell Academy Principal Keri Gelenian after 14 years in the role. In mid-May, Superintendent Barrett Williams — who will become principal of Strafford’s Newton School in July — resigned and Jennifer Botzojorns, who had been hired as interim principal to replace Gelenian, became interim superintendent.

Some residents expressed renewed confidence in the district’s direction with the arrival of Botzojorns and Avery.

“I have a little bit better faith in the School Board. I have a lot of faith in the new superintendent,” Orford resident Charlie Smith said. “If there’s anyone who’s going to steer this ship in the right direction, it’s her.”

Botzojorns, who lives in St. Johnsbury, Vt., had previously served as superintendent of the Kingdom East School District, based in Lyndon, Vt. In 2023, she was named Superintendent of the Year by the Vermont Superintendent’s Association before taking what she called a “gap year” before stepping in to fill Rivendell’s leadership vacancies.

Avery, who was elected in April, previously served on the Rivendell School Board from 2001 to 2008, when he moved to St. Johnsbury. There, he joined its school board in 2009 and served for eight years until moving back to Fairlee in 2017.

His father, Allen, was a longtime member of the Fairlee School Board and was “instrumental in the creation of this school district,” Avery said after the meeting Saturday. “My father was passionate about education,” and he carries on that tradition in his own board service, he said.

Fairlee resident and former Rivendell Dean of Students Michael Galli said that he thinks the passage of the budget Saturday was “absolutely” related to the recent leadership changes.

“The loss of Keri Gelenian was tragic, and I think the staff and community are still grieving over that. But with the arrival of Avery and Botzojorns, “I think they are hopeful again,” he said.

Botzojorns will continue to serve as interim superintendent through June 2025 while the board conducts a search for both a Rivendell Academy principal and a permanent superintendent.

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