Orwell, other towns OK high school budget

ORWELL — Orwell residents on Tuesday joined others in the Addison Rutland Supervisory Union in approving a 2017-2018 Fair Haven Union High School budget proposal of $7,831,980 that had been defeated on Town Meeting Day.
Residents in the ARSU-member communities of Orwell, Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Fair Haven endorsed the spending plan by a 615-511 tally, according to figures provided by district Superintendent Ron Ryan. It’s the same spending plan that ARSU voters defeated last March by a 927-763 tally.
The FHUHS budget revote was one of five referenda fielded by district voters on Tuesday, and all of them passed.
Ryan credited a spirited public information campaign for turning the tide for the budget, which reflects a 3.4-percent spending reduction ($279,130) compared to this year. District officials theorized that a big reason for the budget’s initial defeat was state-mandated wording on the ballot noting a projected 9.75-percent increase in per-pupil spending. Officials were concerned that voters in March might have misconstrued that to mean a 9.75-percent increase in overall spending.
“We tried to keep the conversation going,” Ryan said. “I think it really paid off.”
The per-pupil spending increase was caused in large part by a drop in student enrollment and a $718,885 decline in revenues for the high school. FHUHS’s higher per-pupil spending rate of $14,881 will still be “substantially below the statewide union high school average of $15,380,” according to an informational flyer sent out by the district.
“We are really elated,” Ryan said of school officials’ reaction to Tuesday’s positive votes within the ARSU. “It’s a happy day here.”
Here is a rundown of Tuesday’s other voting results in the ARSU:
•  Fair Haven residents passed a revised version of their elementary school budget, 221-135. The original budget was defeated on Town Meeting Day.
•  Residents in the Castleton-Hubbardton Union School District OK’d a revised budget by a slim 346-336 tally. The original budget was defeated on Town Meeting Day.
•  Fair Haven residents voted 234-124 in favor of joining a new Slate Valley Modified Unified Union School District (SVMUUSD) under Vermont’s Act 46. Fair Haven voters had rejected the Act 46 referendum on March 7, 220-208.
•  Castleton residents affirmed their support of joining the SVMUUSD, voting 315-259 in favor. Castleton residents had OK’d the Act 46 question by a 360-290 tally back on March 7, but a resident successfully petitioned for reconsideration.
Addison Rutland Supervisory Union officials needed at least four of the district’s six communities to support forming a SVMUUSD that would be governed by a single board presiding over a single budget. Tuesday’s voting results mean that five of the six towns will join the unified district, with Orwell standing alone in opposition. Orwell residents rejected the Act 46 referendum three times. The community will now work with the Vermont Agency of Education to determine how its school system will be governed in the future.
Orwell will need to prove to the agency that its individual school governance plan meets the objectives of Act 46, a state law designed to encourage efficiencies and shared resources among neighboring school districts. If they fail to make a convincing argument, the Agency of Education can place Orwell in a unified school district.
In the meantime, the town will continue to operate the Orwell Village School as a “Non-Member Elementary District.” It will continue to elect its own elementary school board, vote on its elementary budget, and pay its own elementary expenses. It will continue to send secondary school students to FHUHS (paying a proportional share based on enrollment), and its school board representatives will only be able to vote on modified union district business relating to grades 9-12, officials said.
Orwell will not share in the financial perks the other five towns will receive in transitioning to the new Slate Valley district. Orwell will no longer qualify for its “small schools grant,” according to Ryan. The grant amounted to around $100,000 in 2016, according to ARSU officials.
Ryan said Orwell has another year in which to potentially reverse its decision and join the SVMUUSD. After a year, it would require a positive vote by the five other member-towns to admit Orwell to the SVMUUSD, according to Ryan.
“It would be much easier (for Orwell) if they were on board,” Ryan said.
For now, ARSU officials are planning the unification transition for Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Fair Haven. Ryan believes the Agency of Education will call an organizational meeting for the five SVMUUSD communities as soon as next month.
“Right now, we are in a waiting mode,” Ryan said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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