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Bristol School Board wants voter feedback on school spending

BRISTOL — Three-dozen parents, teachers and community members packed the Bristol Elementary School library Monday evening to give their input to the school board on how it should draft a new budget proposal.
But board members did not discuss spending numbers that could appear in that proposal or set a date for citizens to vote on it.
Voters on Town Meeting Day rejected the original spending plan, which totaled $4.93 million, by a tally of 377 to 267.
The first task, board chair Steve Barsalou said, was to figure out why exactly voters said “no” the first time around to a budget that increased spending by 2.76 percent, in line with spending plans at schools across the state.
“I think community engagement is the top priority, to find out exactly why the budget was defeated,” he said.
At board meetings preceding the vote, many community members said they were upset that the original budget, if approved, would have necessitated the layoffs of one teacher and five non-special education aides. Others said they were concerned that the growth of the supervisory union budget — which residents in each of the five spending towns do not directly vote on — was outpacing the budget increases at Bristol Elementary.
Ultimately, the BES board will have to decide whether to warn a spending figure that is higher than the original $4.93 million proposal, which may save jobs but would raise the burden on taxpayers; or lower, which may force further cuts but ease the financial burden on the community.
Board members said they plan to hold public forums and seek input via an exit-poll type survey. But an anonymous online survey created by community member Megan LaRose and distributed on Front Porch Forum may give the board some of the answers it needs.
LaRose told the Independent on Tuesday that she created the poll to help the school board understand voters’ motivations, and that many residents don’t want the board to make further cuts in the new draft.
“Mostly, we are hoping to let the school board members know they have our vote; to do what’s best for our 5-Town community, even if that means voting the first run down,” LaRose said in an email.
A community member gave a copy of the survey results to date to board members and the Independent at Monday’s meeting. The survey asks a number of questions of ANeSU voters, including why or why not they voted for their elementary or high school budgets (voters last week also rejected the spending proposal for Mount Abraham Union High School).
According to the findings, the respondents included 87 Bristol voters. Of that group, 62 indicated that they voted “no” on the BES budget. The respondents gave a variety of explanations for why they voted the way they did.
“I would like to see position cuts as an absolute last resort,” one person wrote. “I am willing to vote for a slightly higher budget if we could keep some of these positions.”
Other voters expressed frustration with the supervisory union budget.
“I voted ‘no’ because I feel it’s the only way to express my disgust with the ‘untouchable’ SU budget,” one wrote. “Let’s make cuts from the top down.”
Another respondent who voted “no” on the BES budget suggested cutting positions at the supervisory union level would affect students less.
“There are too many paid positions within ANeSU that, if eliminated, would have much less impact on students,” the respondent wrote.
Board members said they would review the 50-plus pages of survey results.
In addition to determining why voters rejected the budget, the board also discussed how to draft a new proposal.
Andrea Murnane, one of several teachers at the meeting, asked the board what opportunities the faculty would have to offer input on the new budget. At previous meetings, teachers said they felt left out of the initial budget process. Barsalou said the board was still figuring out how to solicit input, but Superintendent David Adams promised there would be a method by which teachers can offer advice.
“I’ll make sure there’s teacher input in the process,” he said.
The board’s goal is to get a budget approved by voters by July 1, when the 2016 fiscal year starts. While initial budgets must by law be warned between 30 and 40 days before Town Meeting Day, state law dictates that school budget revotes need to be warned only seven days in advance. The law also requires school boards to host an informational session before the new vote.
As a frame of reference, last year’s school budget revotes in Ferrisburgh and Vergennes took place in the middle of May, and were both successful.
Adams cautioned the board that he did not advocate waiting until June for another vote. He explained that if there is no approved budget by that time, the district must prepare to borrow to money to run the school in the absence of a budget.
If the community does not approve a new budget by July 1, Adams explained that the school is permitted by law to borrow up to 87 percent of the initial proposed budget to keep the school running.
As a target date, board members discussed holding a new budget vote in the third week of April, before the ANeSU recesses for spring break the following week. The school board will meet again on Monday, March 16, at 5:30 p.m., and will tentatively meet on a weekly basis until a new budget proposal is completed.

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