Voters reject Mount Abe, Bristol school budgets again

BRISTOL — Voters in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union rejected two of the three school budgets up for consideration Tuesday. It is the latest chapter in a tumultuous spring for the district, which has also seen a citizens petition calling for the removal of the superintendent and a near-unanimous vote of no confidence in his leadership by the teachers’ union.
Residents rejected spending plans for Mount Abraham Union High School by a tally of 755 to 485, and Bristol Elementary School, 224 to 166.
Monkton voters approved the budget for Monkton Central School by a narrow margin, 158 to 132.
The margin of defeat for the Mount Abe budget was wider than the first time around. On Town Meeting Day, 46.7 percent supported the budget proposal. On Tuesday, just 39.1 percent of residents voted “yes.”
Mount Abe board chair Dawn Griswold issued a statement on behalf of the board, and vowed to get back to work on yet another budget draft.
“The Mt. Abraham School Board is disappointed in the outcome of today’s vote, however we continue to be committed to working to adopt a budget that the community will find acceptable,” Griswold said. “We will continue to engage the community, through budget discussions and other outreach to help community members receive information so they can make balanced and thoughtful decisions.”
The Mount Abe spending proposal of $14.02 million was $36,000 less than the plan rejected on Town Meeting Day and $69,000 less than the budget for the current fiscal year. It would cut the equivalent of 5.5 professional staff positions and the equivalent of 2.3 full-time support staff positions. But because of declining enrollment, per-pupil spending would rise by around $1,000.
After the first budget defeat, the Mount Abe board pledged to seek input from community members about how to proceed. It held six public meetings and sent a community survey to registered voters, of whom 336 responded. But despite the board’s efforts, voters again said “no” to the spending plan proposal.
The proposed $4.93 million Bristol Elementary spending plan was nearly identical to the first draft, but cut spending for maintenance of the school building and grounds to limit staff cuts. Still, the budget would have cut one teacher and three non-special education aides. Bristol’s budget proposal received slightly more support this time, 42.5 percent compared to 41.5 percent in March.
Bristol School Board member Krista Siringo said the board was dismayed that their second budget proposal was defeated.
“I felt we put together a budget that (addressed the) concerns of the community, but clearly we still have work to do,” she said. “We had a great level of engagement in the community throughout the process, and want to make sure we have that going forward.”
The Monkton Central School board’s $2.82 million spending proposal was also nearly identical to the one rejected by voters in March. But the board reorganized line items to restore a full-time teacher position while also adding a half-time aide and 0.2 full-time equivalent counselor. This time around, 54.4 percent of voters said “yes” to the proposal.
Monkton Central board chair Kristin Blanchette said the board was thrilled the new budget proposal garnered the support of a majority of voters.
“It’s a good budget to support Monkton Central School, and we’re pleased that voters agreed with our revisions,” she said.
Blanchette praised Principal Betsy Knox and Superintendent David Adams for drafting a new budget proposal that added positions back in without raising the bottom line.
Many residents, board members, teachers and administrators across the ANeSU woke up Wednesday morning wondering why voters said “no” to budgets for Bristol and Mount Abe.
The answers may not be easy to identify. One factor that complicates matters is that boards received mixed feedback after the original budget defeats. Some residents advocated for more spending to preserve staff positions, while others urged boards to slash budgets to decrease taxes.
Tasked with negotiating between those two conflicting positions, both the Mount Abe and Bristol boards charted a moderate course, by keeping spending levels virtually the same while allocating more funds for staff. Superintendent Adams, who was not available for comment Wednesday, expressed support for the budget proposals Tuesday afternoon, before polls closed.
“With an additional five-week period of debate and review of significant public input through forums and surveys, each board has reexamined and refocused a number of spending priorities,” Adams said.  “I believe every board has considered this valuable stakeholder input and again put forward responsible budgets to meet the needs of students and the community.”
In a broader context, the most recent budget defeats come amid a vocal contingent of discontent from residents in the leadership of the school boards and administration.
On March 24, hundreds of residents crammed into the Lincoln Community School gym for meeting of the ANeSU board to support a citizens petition that asked the board to fire Adams.
Many of the residents who spoke at that meeting raised concerns about how the boards govern the supervisory union, alleging that the current policies are too vague to allow the ANeSU board to properly supervise Adams or evaluate his performance.
That same evening, the district teachers union delivered the results of an internal school climate survey that presented a scathing illustration of the atmosphere for employees at the ANeSU’s six schools.
Union president and Lincoln Community School teacher Mikaela Frank also delivered the news that union members voted 163 to 1 that they had no confidence in Adams’ leadership as superintendent.
At that meeting, one administrator expressed support for Adams and said he is a strong leader. Some residents suggested a silent majority of voters have no issue with Adams’ job performance.
Adams’ current contract expires in June of 2016. He declined last month to comment on the petition and the teachers’ vote of no confidence.
But leadership of the district is not the only thing on voters’ minds. Many are also dissatisfied with what they perceive as a lack of local control in the budget process.
At board meetings throughout the supervisory union this spring, a common concern among residents was their lack of direct oversight over the ANeSU budget. The ANeSU board drafts the supervisory union budget, which does not go before voters.
This has become a particular concern in recent years because the ANeSU, like many districts across the state, has consolidated spending in some areas — including special education and technology — from the schools to the supervisory union.
Voter turnout could have played a factor in the defeats, as fewer voters cast ballots for each of the schools. For the Mount Abraham budget, 47 percent fewer voters bothered to show up to the polls.
New Haven resident Stan Bigelow said that the fact that the Mount Abe board warned the revote just seven days before the actual vote was unfair to those district residents who were out of state because they could not hear about the vote and request absentee ballots in time.
“My point is they are not giving people an equal opportunity to vote,” he said.
Griswold on Wednesday declined to speculate on possible reasons voters said “no” this time, adding that the board is eager to receive new feedback. Bristol Elementary board chair Steve Barsalou did not by press time respond to a request for comment. Frank also declined to comment, and said the teachers’ union does not take positions on school budget proposals.
In addition to competing voter concerns, the Mount Abe and Bristol school boards must contend with a looming deadline by which new budgets must be approved. Without new budgets by the end of the fiscal year, on June 30, the schools will have to borrow money to stay open.
By law, the schools can borrow up to 87 percent of the budget sum for the current fiscal year. Board members from both schools acknowledge that’s something they want to avoid.
“At face value, it seems like it’s going to be a real conundrum if we get to that deadline and have to form a budget based on 87 percent of last year’s,” Siringo said. “That’s not a position we want to be in.”
John S. McCright contributed to this story.

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