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ANWSD budget recount — one vote off

VERGENNES — A recount late last week of the March 5 Addison Northwest School District budget vote did not change the result favoring the spending plan, but added one vote in opposition.
In commingled balloting on Town Meeting Day, residents of the five ANWSD communities backed a $22,139,341 budget for the 2019-2020 school year, 672-665.
Officials in Vergennes and Ferrisburgh disagreed their ballots should be commingled, and those votes were counted separately in the Vergennes fire station and Ferrisburgh town office building, respectively, on Thursday. Those recounts confirmed results in each community.
ADDISON SELECTBOARD MEMBER Roger Waterman (in green) and Thomas Fisher of Addison at the recount Friday morning.
Independent photo/Steve James 
On Friday a half-dozen members of the Addison, Panton and Waltham Boards of Civil Authority (BCAs) met at the ANWSD office on Main Street in Vergennes to finish the recount. Their 40-minute tally of the commingled ballots from those three towns uncovered one additional no vote from Waltham, making the final count 672-666.
ANWSD Board Chairwoman Sue Rakowski said she welcomed the recount and was happy that all ANSWD residents could rest easy knowing that the results of such a close election were accurate.
“I think it’s good. It should always be recounted if it’s less than 5 percent,” Rakowski said.  
But the disagreement over the recount process might require action by the ANWSD board, or at least legal research. The board could propose a change to the Articles of Unification, one that might require voter approval.
ANWSD Clerk Tara Brooks, who oversaw Friday morning’s recount, said if necessary a vote to amend the articles to allow fully commingled balloting could be held in conjunction with the November election.  
AT THE ADDISON Northwest School District office Friday morning, Mary Ann Castimiore uses a calculator to tally up votes in a recount at the ANWSD budget vote from Town Meeting Day.
Independent photo/Steve James
As its stands, each ANWSD community now counts its ballots and forwards numbers to ANWSD, which announces the result. Full commingling means the delivery of ballots to a central location and a single count.
Vergennes Clerk Joan Devine said in her opinion the articles of unification provide for commingled reporting of results, but not for commingled counting of ballots in a location outside of each municipality.
Devine was adamant that because the ANWSD articles did not specify the ballots should be commingled for a recount she had no authority to deliver them to ANWSD on Friday morning.
Ferrisburgh Clerk Gloria Warden said she discussed the question with her town’s BCA members, and they collectively came to the same conclusion as Devine. Warden said she hopes the situation will be clarified before the next budget vote.
“We were all in agreement the process had not been changed,” Warden said. “We were never notified to commingle. It (recounting in Ferrisburgh) just seemed the best thing to do until the process is fixed.”
The other three towns agreed the intent of the articles called for commingling, a legal position supported last week by the Vermont Secretary of State’s office and the attorney who wrote the articles, according to school officials. The three towns delivered the ballots on Friday morning.
KATHY CLARK AND Vince Varadis tally ballots during a recount on Friday of the school budget vote from Town Meeting. The recount took place at the Addison Northwest School District central office in Vergennes.
Independent photo/Steve James
Rakowski and ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule said on Friday they will be seeking legal opinions on how to move forward, and that Australian balloting might not be necessary, assuming all parties agree on a solution.
They said while some Vermont unified district articles do contain language specific to commingled balloting, as Devine stated, others that commingle ballots do not.
“I think we’re still researching,” Soule said.
If the ANWSD board decides to put it to voters it would not be unprecedented. The board proposed three changes to the Articles of Unification on the March 5 ballot. Voters that day approved a trio of articles that would allow the board to borrow money in advance of property-tax receipts and state funding, to make the district’s annual report available to residents electronically; and to approve board members’ pay.
The next question will be whether the close result will trigger another petition, this one for a revote. The recount required just one registered voter from each of the five communities to email Brooks, the district clerk. None of the citizens who requested the recount observed the vote on Friday.
The bar is set higher if residents want to petition for a budget revote. No one at the ANWSD office on Friday morning had heard word of a specific effort to call for a reconsideration, although Soule said she had seen one email chain in which the question was asked what the process is to petition for a revote.
According to the Secretary of State’s Office, state law requires a petition seeking a revote to be signed by 5 percent of the total electorate of the five communities, and it would have to be turned into Brooks via the ANWSD office.
As of last week there were 6,519 registered voters in the ANWSD towns, a number that can fluctuate almost daily. Assuming that ANWSD voter count holds, petitioners would need at least 308 valid signatures to trigger a special election. The deadline for such a petition would be 30 days after the March 5 election, or April 4.
After three years of essentially level district spending, the $22,139,341 budget approved on March 5 will increase school spending by about $1.03 million, or 4.89 percent.
Largely because of declining enrollment, the tax impact could be an extra 9.6 cents on school tax rates in ANWSD towns, although final numbers won’t be known until the Legislature is through tinkering. Also, roughly two-thirds of Vermont homeowners pay education property taxes based on their incomes and will receive rebates, thus not feeling the full impact of any increase.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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