County voters reject five school budgets

ADDISON COUNTY — Voters in the northern half of Addison County rejected five school budgets in two supervisory unions on Tuesday evening, a sign that voters remain frustrated with the rising costs of education taxes.
Residents rejected spending plans for Vergennes Union High School and Ferrisburgh Central School in the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union, and three schools in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union: Mount Abraham Union High School, Monkton Central School and Bristol Elementary School.
School officials on Wednesday were still assessing the reasons for the budget rebuffs.
ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning said that she believes voters in her district rejected the spending plans for diverse reasons: Some believed the proposed cuts to staff, especially at VUHS, were too deep, while others thought the budgets were too expensive.
That contrast puts school boards in a bind, unsure whether they should send new budget drafts to voters that increase or decrease spending from the original proposals.
“I have heard both sides,” Canning said. “We have to pay attention to both.”
School boards in other nearby communities saw voters approve their spending proposals by relatively comfortable margins. The seven Addison Central Supervisory Union towns that send students to Middlebury Union middle and high schools OK’d a 2015-2016 spending plan of $17,287,008 on a vote of 1,218-615. Voters in the southern tier of the county and northeastern Rutland County OK’d a $10,718,131 Otter Valley Union High School spending plan by a 1,037-662 tally.
Voters in 17 towns that send students to the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center OK’d a spending proposal of $3,496,478, which reflects a 2.24-percent increase over this year’s spending plan. It garnered 3,763 yes votes and 1,933 no votes.
In the Bristol area, the Mount Abe budget failed with 1,241 nos to only 1,088 yeses. The proposed $14.06 million in spending was less than a fraction of a percent less than the $14.09 million voters approved last year.
Dawn Griswold, who chairs both the Mount Abe and Monkton Central School boards, said on Wednesday morning she had no immediate insight into why voters rejected the schools’ proposed budgets and declined to comment further. She referred questions to Superintendent David Adams.
Adams did not return a request for comment by press time, nor did Monkton Central School interim Principal Betsy Knox.
Discussion of the proposed budget dominated the Bristol Elementary School annual meeting Monday evening. The spending proposal called for a staff reduction of one full-time teacher and five educational assistants.
Voters said no to the spending plan for the elementary school voting 377–267.
At Monday night’s meeting many Bristol residents voiced concern that as a result of the cuts, the quality of education students receive at the school would suffer.
BES board chair Steve Barsalou did not return a call for comment Wednesday, but at the meeting Monday said the board agreed to the staff cuts as a way to keep the spending increase over last year to 2.76 percent and thus have a larger impact on taxes.
“Without a reduction in staff, we’re looking at a 7 to 8 percent (budget) increase,” he said. “(Principal) Jump and (Superintendent) Adams have assured us that the quality of education at BES will not diminish.”
BES principal Sandy Jump told the Independent Wednesday that she didn’t know why voters said ‘no’ to that school’s budget proposal, but said she wishes the next draft the school board prepares will meet students’ needs.
“My hope is in any budget that’s passed, the budget is appropriate and it provides a quality education for all the kids in the school,” she said.
Voters rejected the proposed budget for Monkton Central School by a tally of 223–126.
The proposed budget for Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro also included staff cuts, but voters in their annual meeting on Saturday decided to add $137,000 to the budget to fund the positions on the chopping block.
Since the Bristol and Monkton elementary school budgets are decided by Australian ballot, amending the budget sums is not possible.
Krista Siringo, who on Tuesday was elected to the Bristol Elementary School board and had encouraged residents to vote down the proposed budget, said she is pleased the board can now go back and write a new spending plan.
“I’m grateful that we as a community have the opportunity to redraft the budget,” Siringo said. “Clearly there were too many questions and concerns about what the impact of the original budget on our school would have been.”
She said she hopes to help draft a budget that is both fiscally responsible and provides the education students deserve.
Results on Town Meeting Day brought a sense of déjà vu in the county’s northwestern quadrant as voters in those five towns had rejected both the VUHS and Ferrisburgh Central School budgets last year.
ANwSU voters shot down VUHS’s proposed $10.47 million spending plan, voting 831-718. Administrators had said the budget would begin to dig VUHS out of its deep financial hole and would more accurately reflect the cost of operating the school after what they claim has been years of underfunded spending.
The budget called for an 11-percent spending increase, or about $1 million, beyond what the ANwSU voters approved for the high school this past spring.
That increase in spending was in spite of several planned spending cuts: faculty reductions totaling a net of three full-time teaching jobs, a full-time maintenance job, $84,000 in maintenance, $23,700 in extracurricular activities, and a number of smaller cuts in supplies and transportation.
In Ferrisburgh, voters rejected their proposed elementary school budget 302–267. It would have raised spending by 2.97 percent to about $3.6 million.
ANwSU Superintendent Canning noted that while both those budgets failed, the margins were thinner than last year. She also said that there was low turnout throughout the supervisory union, which may have been a factor in the budgets going down.
Canning said her initial analysis was that the administration and school boards have to do a better job of engaging with voters, especially those who did not turn out Tuesday or are on the fence about supporting the budgets.
“We’re going to do a lot more analysis to see who voted, whether they’re longtime residents versus parents,” Canning said. “We’re going to try to get some surveys out to the community.”
Canning said that she felt the proposed VUHS budget preserved programs for students while limiting spending, and she is concerned about the effect of further cuts.
“We’ve already had significant cuts of staff in the last two years,” she said. “If the board decides to cut the budget further, I’m worried about more of a significant impact on the kids.”
Last year, both the second drafts of the FCS and VUHS budgets passed in May. Canning said she’s optimistic that boards can have the same success this year.
“These communities, in the end, support their kids, and that’s what I can bank on,” Canning said. 

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