Rivendell voters reject school budget

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-14-2024 7:30 PM

ORFORD — Voters delivered a decisive defeat to Rivendell’s proposed $15.7 million school budget Saturday, rejecting it 240-143 in paper-ballot voting.

The school district’s annual meeting on Saturday drew about 400 voters, representing about 14% of approximately 2,600 voters in the district’s four towns, according to moderator David Hooke.

They packed the Rivendell Academy gymnasium and directed concerns about spending to the 11-member board from the floor.

“They want way too much money,” Orford resident Phil Magruder said.

Rivendell’s per-pupil spending is among the highest in Vermont at roughly $28,000 per student.

“It’s too much,” Vershire resident Debra Kingsbury said to the board. “Level fund. Make cuts.”

The board came under fire for moving too slowly to address declining enrollment by consolidating buildings and decreasing the number of teachers and administrative staff. In the past decade, the district’s enrollment has declined about 14%, from 486 in 2014 to 421 in 2024.

“I question the amount of personnel given the enrollment,” Ed Bouquillon, of Fairlee, said in an interview Saturday.

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Bouquillon favored “right-sizing” the district by accelerating the closure of Samuel Morey Elementary School.

“I know it’s difficult, but you have to start,” he said.

The Rivendell Interstate School District serves Orford, Fairlee, West Fairlee and Vershire. Its roughly 400 students attend Westshire Elementary School in West Fairlee, Samuel Morey Elementary School in Fairlee and Orford’s Rivendell Academy, which serves grades 6-12.

This past fall, the board announced a three-year plan to introduce multi-age classrooms at the elementary level to reduce the number of teachers and then close Samuel Morey Elementary and move its students to the Rivendell Academy campus by 2027.

The board is still deciding “what the process will look like,” and what sort of community and professional input will be needed, School Board Chairwoman Kathy Hooke said in an interview Saturday.

“It is possible that different options will emerge through the planning process” she said, adding that it is not a certainty that it will be Samuel Morey that is shuttered.

Not everyone wanted the budget to fail, though nobody at the meeting expressed outright enthusiasm for it.

“I see it as a transitional year” for the board, Doug Tifft, of Fairlee, said in an interview during ballot voting. “You’re doing right by asking questions,” he told the crowd, but urged voters to support the budget and “hold their feet to the fire in the coming years.”

There was a burst of applause in the gym as moderator David Hooke, who is the husband of the School Board chairwoman, announced the paper-ballot results.

“I’m disappointed. We worked really, really hard on this budget. I feel it was responsible,” Kathy Hooke said after the meeting.

Though the bottom line was up $1 million, Rivendell’s proposal had “no increase in the amount of the budget that would come from taxation” over last year,” she said.

The deadline for renewing the contracts of Rivendell’s faculty for the 2024-25 school year is Monday, which presents a challenge for Superintendent Barrett Williams.

“Plan B is still to be determined,” Williams said in an interview following Saturday’s meeting.

If a budget does not pass by the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1, the district will be eligible to borrow just 87% of this year’s operating budget for the 2024-25 school year. That would mean layoffs of roughly 30 teachers, which is “not something anyone wants to do,” Williams said.

He said he will reach out to the union and request an extension for the contract due dates. If an extension isn’t granted, Williams will decide whether to issue contracts anyway and hope a budget passes by July 1, or lay off all or part of the teaching staff and try to rehire faculty once a budget is in place.

The tight timing was worsened by this year’s late meeting date.

Rivendell was set to hold its annual school meeting on March 23 this year only to discover that it had been improperly warned. Because annual meetings require a 30-day warning, it was pushed until Saturday.

Kathy Hooke said she thinks that the zeitgeist of this year’s Vermont Town Meeting season is partly to blame for the Rivendell budget’s downfall.

“We’ve been swept up in the energy of the 30 budgets that failed in Vermont on Town Meeting Day,” even though “what we brought to the voters was radically different from the double-digit increases in those budgets,” she said.

The board will meet Monday to decide on a path forward.

“We have heard the voters,” Kathy Hooke said.

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