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Virus delays have Upper Valley school districts wondering when they can pass budgets

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/14/2020 8:56:20 PM
Modified: 4/14/2020 8:56:13 PM

At first, Strafford School District officials thought they would be able to bring a new budget before voters, who rejected the plan presented to them on Town Meeting Day last month.

The Strafford School Board met the week after the budget defeat, took another look at the numbers and was ready to put it before voters again.

The onset of the novel coronavirus has upended those plans, leaving officials in Strafford, and in the First Branch Unified School District towns of Chelsea and Tunbridge, to wait either until the state lifts its “stay home” order or until a voting method consistent with social distancing guidelines is ready.

And as officials wait, the economic conditions decline, which could make winning approval for a budget a more difficult proposition.

The Strafford district’s $3.4 million budget lost by a vote of 54-39 in March.

The board felt the budget had been turned down because of mistakes in some of the numbers. It wasn’t a question of the budget itself, but of confidence in the figures, she said.

“We came up with basically the same budget,” said Sarah Root, chairwoman of the School Board.

Root said in a phone interview that the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office advised the district to cancel a planned April 12 revote without specifying a later date.

“Where we stand now is that we do not have a budget. We do not have a date for a meeting,” she said.

If that condition continues until July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, the district would be able to borrow up to 87% of its current budget. But even if voters approve a budget in August or September, it would go into effect for the 2020-21 school year, Root said.

The district is currently bargaining with its teachers, she added, and has sent current teachers an “intent to employ” letter, since it cannot offer contracts without a budget in place.

In the First Branch district, the principals of the two schools are working with board members Sue Kay and Maryann Caron to develop new budget numbers, board chairwoman Kathy Galluzzo said in a phone interview.

Voters rejected the district’s $7 million budget by a vote of 106-46.

“I think the biggest concern we heard was the budget goes up every year and it’s not sustainable,” Galluzzo said.

The economic decline will make their task more difficult, she said.

“We needed to come up with a better number, but how much better in our current environment?” she said.

The board plans to meet via video-conference on April 22.

Two other districts that haven’t yet held budget votes — Rivendell Interstate School District and Oxbow Union Unified School District — are in a similar holding pattern, and have been dealing with more pressing matters, such as shifting to remote learning, continuing school meal programs and making new plans for special education students.

Rivendell, which comprises Vershire, West Fairlee, Fairlee and Orford and follows Vermont requirements, had rescheduled its annual meeting for May 5, but Superintendent Barrett Williams said the board planned to push it back to May 19 at a meeting Tuesday night.

“We’re kind of hoping that the state approves a provision that allows us to do absentee voting,” Williams said in a phone interview.

The Oxbow board, which oversees elementary schools in Bradford and Newbury, Vt., Oxbow Union High School and River Bend Career and Technical Center, hasn’t met to discuss its voting options, assistant superintendent Bruce Williams said in a phone interview.

When the unified district was established, it opted to hold an annual floor meeting and vote on its budget from the floor. State lawmakers approved a plan that would allow public bodies to vote by mail and by Australian ballot, including drive-up voting, where a poll worker brings a ballot up to a car window.

Regardless of when the vote happens, Williams said he hopes the Oxbow district will get the same funding as districts that already have budgets in place. The state’s Education Fund has seen its revenue from consumption taxes take a dive.

“I don’t think there’s any resolution of how they’re going to address that issue,” he said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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