Starksboro residents approve new budget for Robinson Elementary

BRISTOL — More than 200 Starksboro residents packed the auditorium at Mount Abraham Union High School on Saturday morning for a special meeting to reconsider the budget Robinson Elementary School voters approved in February.
After more than an hour of debate, those residents approved a spending plan that was larger than the figure originally warned for the Feb. 28 annual meeting, but less than the figure that had been approved at that February meeting.
The special meeting was prompted by a citizens’ petition to reconsider the figure approved Feb. 28. Per state law, citizens can force a budget reconsideration with a petition bearing the signatures of at least 5 percent of voters.
Voters by a tally of 142-65 approved spending $2,925,000 in the fiscal year that begins July 1, a sum offered by the school board. That sum is about $80,000 less than the $3,005,169 budget voters approved at the Robinson annual meeting Feb. 28, and about $115,000 more than the spending plan originally warned for the Feb. 28 meeting ($2,809,709).
“We feel the increase is more than the community can afford, and that’s why we’d like to amend it,” school board chair Louis duPont said in explaining to those in attendance why the board was asking for less than was originally approved.
Before getting to the business of amending the budget total, voters first had to consider whether to reconsider it in the first place. That article passed, 122-70.
The $3 million budget passed in February represented a spending increase of 13.4 percent over the $2.65 million budget for the current fiscal year. The $2.925 million spending proposal that was approved is 10.3 percent higher than the current year.
The board proposal cut $80,000 from the figure approved in February through:
•  $54,000 in staff cuts (a 0.7 FTE (full-time equivalent) literacy coach and a 0.7 FTE library coach).
•  $12,000 less spent on building repair.
•  $6,000 less sent to the district sinking fund.
•  $8,500 in savings from a lower-than-expected supervisory union budget.
According to board calculations, their new budget proposal will increase education taxes on a home valued at $200,000 by $106. Under the budget approved in February, education taxes on that same home would have increased by $207.
Board members at the meeting acknowledged that the $2.925 million spending plan still represents a significant spending increase over current levels, but asked voters to support it. The board said that future staff cuts might be needed next year.
Board member Nancy Cornell outlined a litany of needs at Robinson Elementary.
“We have some kids with some big needs, who are really struggling,” she said. “About 25 percent of our kids who enter kindergarten are not ready to learn. About 16 percent, K-6, have learning disabilities. About 13 percent have severe social and emotional issues. About 50 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.”
Starksboro resident Mary Barnett said that many residents came to the meeting hoping to keep the budget figure passed in February, while many others came with the intention of amending the figure back down to the original school board proposal. She praised the board for on Saturday presenting a spending plan that balances the desires of both those camps.
“I’m grateful you’ve offered what I think is a great compromise between the two positions,” she said.
Bonita Bedard, who served on the Robinson school board for many years before being defeated for re-election by Cornell on Town Meeting Day, said she did not know why the board did not stick to its original proposal of $2.869 million from February, which included more staff cuts. Bedard said the board should not cave to public pressure, because sometimes it is necessary to keep spending down and can be done without hurting students.
“The thing we are ignoring in this conversation is that the staff has to be dealt with,” Bedard said. “We can’t, every year, pass an 11 percent increase.”
After more than an hour of discussion, voters by near-unanimous voice vote agreed to cease debate and call the question. Another resident then attempted to offer an amendment that would have decreased the budget sum to the original board proposal from February, but was prohibited from doing so because voters had already agreed to call the question and vote on the article.
After a request by a group of residents, the moderator ordered the vote to be taken by paper ballot. Thirty minutes later, the result of the balloting was announced — voters had approved the new budget — and the meeting adjourned.

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