ANwSU voters support VUHS budget by 169-vote margin

VERGENNES — Addison Northwest Supervisory Union residents on Tuesday backed the third Vergennes Union High School budget proposal put before them this spring — a $10,258,933 plan — by a margin of 814-645, or about 56-44 percent.
The VUHS board had cut a total $211,000 from the budget that was soundly defeated on Town Meeting Day, and it was $55,000 lower than the plan that lost by 46 votes on May 5. That May 5 vote was complicated by a second, more costly proposal on the same ballot, an addition board members later admitted was a mistake.
This time around, their plan earned solid support in Ferrisburgh (305-212), Vergennes (272-215) and Waltham (77-39).
Addison (115-103) and Panton (64-57) voted against the proposed budget, but by margins smaller than in earlier budget setbacks.
Addison Northeast Supervisory Union voters on Tuesday also strongly supported a third proposed Mount Abraham Union High school budget proposal (see story, Page 1A).
Despite teacher cuts in the VUHS plan that bring faculty job losses to seven over the past two years and other staff cuts, the plan will create a spending increase of about $845,000 over current spending.
Two major factors are driving that increase, ANwSU officials said:
• $256,000 will go toward retiring a $768,419 special education deficit that they said has resulted from years of underestimating those expenses by former administrators.
• $439,000 in higher anticipated spending on special education. Officials said that figure represents a more realistic estimate of those costs.
VUHS board chairwoman Laurie Childers said in an email she believes residents are beginning to rebuild trust in the board and in new ANwSU leadership’s ability to handle financial matters, and that faith helped create support on Tuesday.
“After a challenging period, the community’s broken trust in the VUHS board and administration is healing. The board is listening to our community and answering questions. We are committed to rebuilding trust through transparency,” Childers wrote. “We are honored and humbled by this vote of support.”
Childers also said many budget supporters helped others to understand what was at stake — if this plan had not passed, VUHS officials would have had to cut extracurricular programs and teacher stipends, and the school might have had to open the school year with a state-imposed budget equal to 87 percent of the current level.
“Yesterday’s successful budget vote was the result of many parents, teachers and community members succeeding in getting the message to voters, ‘We need your support, vote yes to VUHS,’” Childers said. “It really was a community effort.”
ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning noted the turnaround in Vergennes, where on May 5 the vote went against the budget, 266-181.
This time, Canning noted some city officials, including Mayor Bill Benton, City Manager Mel Hawley and Alderwoman Lynn Donnelly, publicly backed the budget.  
“The town officials that came out in support of the budget, especially in Vergennes, was extremely helpful,” she said.
Canning also agreed with Childers that “people are realizing we have been trying to be fiscally responsible,” and that was a factor, as were the efforts of board members and parents to encourage residents to vote.
The fact that officials would have had no other choices but to look at cutting the Commodore wrestling and boys’ lacrosse teams, among other extra-curricular programs, might have made an impression on voters, Canning said.
“That’s always going to get people’s attention,” she said. “People were beginning to see we really couldn’t cut any more academic programs.”
Teaching jobs were locked in place in April per the district’s employee agreements, meaning any further cuts to the VUHS budget for the coming school year would have had to come in what Canning called “non-contract areas.”
Including elementary school spending and capital fund articles that were already locked into place, residential tax rate hikes in the five ANwSU towns are now expected range from about 1.6 to 4.65 percent, according to ANwSU estimates.
In dollar terms, ANwSU residential school tax increases will range from about $25 in Waltham to about $66 in Panton and Vergennes per $100,000 of assessed value.
Taxpayers eligible for prebates would pay these full increases in the first year, but would receive tax relief in the following year. About two-thirds of Addison County homeowners receive tax relief.
Now that the budget season is over, Canning said another decision — one that will ring a bell for most ANwSU residents — may yet be on the horizon. New legislation offers a 10-cent tax break for districts that unify.
“On our plates next is going to be the question of unification,” Canning said. “Are we going to have that done to us, or are we going to be able to lead our own initiative? And I think the incentives in H.361 are pretty good and are going to have a big impact on taxpayers, and I hope that is going to be seen as a positive.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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