Starksboro to vote Saturday on Robinson school budget

STARKSBORO — The meeting this Saturday morning to reconsider the spending plan for Starksboro’s Robinson Elementary School will be held in the Mount Abraham Union High School auditorium in an effort to accommodate as many voters as possible.
“We didn’t want to have the remotest possibility that we’d overwhelm the space at Robinson,” said Starksboro School Board chair Louis duPont. “It’s better to have a bigger room.”
duPont estimated that the Robinson Elementary gym, where the annual budget meeting is normally held, has a capacity of about 300 people — 200 seated, and 100 standing.
He said it wouldn’t be fair to expect voters to stand throughout the potentially long meeting, and it could also make it hard for the moderator to count votes.
“If we’re in a situation where we’re asking people to stand, it’s not really ideal for the deliberative process.”
Town Clerk Cheryl Etsey said there are 1,290 registered voters in Starksboro. The Mount Abraham auditorium can accommodate about 550. There were only about 150 residents at the annual school meeting Feb. 28. And 347 cast ballots in the school board race on Town Meeting Day.
A group of Starksboro voters circulated a petition to reconsider the school budget after residents at the annual meeting approved a budget figure higher than the sum warned.
During the Robinson annual meeting Feb. 28, voters approved a spending plan totaling $3.01 million, after passing two amendments to increase the sum from the original $2.81 million proposal. The first amendment, offered by the school board, totaled $58,904 and was necessary because the board had miscalculated the total of the original proposal.
The second amendment, made by resident Kristen Toy, added an additional $136,506, to pay for the salaries of staff due to be laid off under the original budget proposal. Voter Cookie Jennings, who drafted the petition, told the Independent last month that she believes many more voters would have come to the meeting if they knew a bloc of residents would try to increase the size of the spending plan.
The budget, as approved in February, represents a more than 12 percent spending increase over the current fiscal year.
Jennings said that subsequent education tax impact would be tough for some residents to swallow.
Saturday’s meeting will begin at 9 a.m., and how long it will last is anyone’s guess. That’s because a majority of voters first must agree to reconsider the budget approved in February.
“If we vote ‘no,’ we’re done, and that amount stands,” duPont explained. “But I think we’re more likely to reconsider.”
If voters decide to reconsider the budget, duPont said the board would then welcome amendments from the floor.
The board will also make its own recommendation for what the final budget sum should look like. He said the board would finalize that proposal at its meeting Wednesday evening, past the deadline for this edition of the Independent, but said Tuesday that it would be lower than the $3.01 million figure on the warning.
“What we’re trying to do is finalize a number that we feel comfortable defending and supporting,” duPont said.
As for his expectations for how the meeting Saturday will play out, duPont noted that the residents who have attended school board meetings since Town Meeting Day have been supportive of the $3.01 million figure. But it will all come down to who shows up on Saturday.
Jennings told the Independent Wednesday morning that she believes voters will ultimately agree on a lower budget figure than at the last meeting.
“I have been reading and listening to a lot of the voters’ concerns about the … increase in school taxes, the high spending per pupil and changes county- and statewide,” she said. “The things I hear make me consider that the initial budget was high.”
She urged her neighbors to make it out to Bristol on Saturday morning.
“I feel the voters of Starksboro need to be there … to help steer our elected officials in the direction we can all live with and make our voices heard by a majority, not a few.”
A group of Starksboro residents have circulated a petition to change the voting method for Starksboro elementary school budgets to Australian ballot sometime in the future.
The Robinson board is also in the process of searching for a new principal. Current principal Patrick Hartnett announced this spring that he will step down at the end of June, citing a monstrous daily commute to Starksboro from his Franklin County home and a desire to spend more time with his family.
duPont said the board has formed a committee of community members, parents, faculty and one board member, Nancy Cornell, to coordinate the search process.
The committee has begun to examine résumés, but has not yet interviewed candidates. duPont said the board hopes to bring two to three finalists to tour the school and meet with the community later in May, with the goal of making a final decision in June.
But he acknowledged that finalizing a budget for the school is the top priority.
“One way or another, we’re going to come out of (Saturday) with a budget,” duPont said. “We don’t want to remain in this state of limbo we’re in.”

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