ID-4 meeting this Wednesday keys on budget, possible switch to ballots

MIDDLEBURY — Mary Hogan Elementary School board directors are hoping for a big turnout at the ID-4 school district annual meeting on Wednesday, April 8. At the 7 p.m. meeting at the school gym residents will vote on the Middlebury elementary school’s proposed 2015-2016 spending plan of $6,775,965, and also potentially change the date and manner by which future spending plans are voted.
The proposed Mary Hogan School budget represents a 1.94-percent increase over the current spending plan. It would allow the elementary school to maintain its current staffing and programs. It would also allow the school to enhance its Shakespeare education program with Town Hall Theater as well as strengthen its contract with the Counseling Service of Addison County to work with students with behavioral problems.
It’s a spending plan that would result in a homestead property tax rate increase of 1.95 percent, according to the ID-4 annual report, which is posted on the Addison Central Supervisory Union website. Per-pupil spending would increase from $14,394 to $14,490, or 0.67 percent.
ID-4 school board chair Ruth Hardy noted in a community forum in today’s Independent (click here) that Mary Hogan Elementary School enrollment is projected to increase slightly from the current 410 to 415 students.
 Staff compensation is in line to rise by 2.94 percent at the school during the 2015-2016 school year. That amounts to an increase of approximately $250,000, but school officials said they were able to mitigate much of that jump through centralizing special education services and various “operational improvements.”
Interest in this year’s ID-4 annual meeting is expected to be heightened by two citizen-driven articles that will appear on the nine-article warning. Those articles read:
•  “Shall the incorporated school district #4 hold its annual meeting on the first Tuesday in March?”
This would provide for a vote on the Mary Hogan budget on Town Meeting Day (instead of in April), but would also not preclude the district from holding a public gathering within three days prior to Town Meeting Day to present the budget and to vote on other matters.
•  “Shall the incorporated district #4 adopt its budget article or articles by Australian ballot?”
The ID-4 board earlier this year received two citizens’ petitions requesting the annual meeting switch and the Australian ballot vote. Both petitions garnered more than 250 signatures. One of the lead petitioners, resident Nancy Malcolm, explains the reasoning of supporters in her community forum (click here) in this issue. Essentially, they believe that an Australian ballot vote would allow more people to weigh in on an ID-4 budget that is currently being fielded by an average of a few dozen people during the meeting-style gathering that now occurs on the second Wednesday of April, as mandated by the district’s charter.
Changing the ID-4 annual meeting to Town Meeting Day would give the Mary Hogan Elementary budget more attention than it gets in April, according to Malcolm.
“We are programmed to think about voting on Town Meeting Day,” Malcolm writes. “We set our schedules knowing that no other meeting should conflict with Town Meeting Day. We take the time to find out the issues and ask questions. If we cannot attend town meeting we know that we can vote absentee ballot. There are many ways for boards to get information to the electorate prior to voting and we have MCTV that covers all of the meetings on television or on line.”
Malcolm said the petition drives should not be construed as being against the school or how it is managed.
“These are not anti-education issues,” Malcolm writes. “This is not a referendum on how the school is run. This is simply a matter of democratic process in 2015 allowing for the most people to participate.”
The ID-4 board’s Policy and Communications Committee has spent several months studying the proposed change in the annual meeting date and the requested shift from a floor vote to an Australian ballot referendum on the Mary Hogan Elementary budget. The committee consulted a lawyer and state officials, and scrutinized the ID-4 charter, which dates back to 1866.
Ultimately, the ID-4 board chose not to approve the citizens’ petitions as presented because of flawed wording flagged by the board’s counsel, Steve Stitzel. But the panel did agree to place the two articles on the April 8 meeting warning that would accomplish the same changes sought by the petitioners.
While the ID-4 board has agreed to warn those two articles, several individual members have gone on the record as preferring to maintain the status quo for the district’s annual meeting.
“I think the ability to come to a meeting and learn about what you are voting on and interacting with your elected officials is a precious right and tradition we have here in Vermont, and I would hate to see anything change that,” Hardy said at the board’s March 4 meeting. “I also think its a slippery slope; it will just continue to degrade the Vermont tradition, which is so precious to lots of people.”
Another article on the warning asks voters if they will approve transferring $150,000 from the FY2014 unassigned fund balance into the Education Reserve Fund. The fund balance is $270,608 according to the warning.
The April 8 ID-4 meeting will begin at 7 p.m. in the Mary Hogan Elementary School gym. Those wanting to weigh in on the warning articles must be physically present to vote.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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