Op/Ed

Editorial: At town meeting, local races and big questions on school budgets

ANGELO LYNN

Across Addison County, the Addison Independent’s coverage of Town Meeting sees relatively few local races or issues, but big questions concerning higher-than-average school budgets.

The town of Addison likely has the highest number of selectboard contestants (nine) for a three-person race. Six challengers will face off against three incumbents. Among the issues facing the town are what to do with the former school building, which was recently sold to the town, and efforts to rehabilitate the former town hall. The town’s general fund budget is up just over 12% from the prior year’s budget.

In Middlebury, there’s a competitive three-way race for two three-years seats on the selectboard. Incumbent Farhad Kahn, former longtime Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington, and former selectman Travis Forbes are competing for two open seats. All three are strong candidates. 

Farhad Kahn, who owns and manages the One Dollar Market, has a unique perspective as a businessperson and brings valuable insights to the board. He’s done an excellent job serving on the board for the past seven years and deserves re-election. We’re intrigued with Dunnington’s interest in the position and know he would bring a wealth of historical background to the town’s decision-making, as well as a can-do attitude addressing the town’s future challenges. He has the advantage of knowing the town workings inside and out, as well as understanding its future challenges. Forbes also brings experience and a businessman’s perspective to the table. Interviews with all three were published in the Independent on Feb. 22 and can be found online.

For brief overviews of each of the 23 town meetings in the county, see our election coverage here.

The toughest question this Town Meeting will be whether to approve school budgets. The ACSD budget sees spending jump 9.9% higher than the prior year, ANWSD is 11.6% higher, while Mount Abe’s budget (MAUSD) is up 9.2%. 

While overall inflation, now at just above 3%, contributes to some of this increase, there’s a 16% increase in health care spending, as well as annual increases in teacher and staff pay — both have oversized impacts on the budget. Add in other increases that are out of local control and it’s difficult to trim these budgets without major cuts to programs.

The one notable excess is that all three schools have elected to keep most, though not all, of the extra pandemic-related positions (formerly paid by federal funds but now paid mostly through local taxes) to help students who dropped behind or are dealing with behavior issues. It’s not that the extra help can’t be used (schools can always spend more), but it’s also true that school districts didn’t have those positions pre-pandemic and continuing to keep them imposes a significant additional cost to taxpayers. Look for taxpayers to demand those positions be culled in the next budget cycle, if not this one.

As for all the hullaballoo over Act 127, House Bill 850 and other legislative noise that pertains to how to raise the funds needed through various tax formulas, that’s for the Legislature to decide. Taxpayers rarely have a precise understanding of what tax rates will be by Town Meeting Day, nor is it within their power to change them. The taxpayer’s voice is to approve or reject their own school budget based on whether the spending is prudent or excessive. Focus on that question when casting your vote.

And, of course, don’t forget to participate in Town Meeting. It’s not just a Vermont tradition, it’s a wonderful demonstration of democracy in action — which works best when enough residents attend to make it effective.

Angelo Lynn

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