Bethel defeats school budget amid Act 60 complaints

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(Host) For the first time since Act 60 went into effect, Bethel voters have rejected their school budget.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, a bare bones spending plan coupled with a double digit tax hike left voters unhappy.

(Zind) Rising costs, declining enrollment and low property appraisals collided this year in Bethel. The school board had to make cuts to bring in a budget that was less than 3% higher that last year, but it still resulted in a property tax increase of over 15%. The board even stripped busing from the budget, a decision that proved unpopular with voters.

Bethel is a town that benefited when Act 60 first went into effect. But the law came in for criticism from voters at this year’s town meeting:

(Floor speaker) “The whole methodology at this point is wrong. And what I mean is, Act 60 has to go. Goodbye, Act 60. Thank you.” (Sound of applause.)

(Zind) But voters spent more time agonizing over the impact the proposed budget cuts would have on their school. Program was pitted against program as townspeople questioned what to cut and what to keep. Many said the school board had its priorities wrong.

(Floor speaker) “I find it hard to vote for this budget, not because I don’t want the money to go toward the kids, but because I have a serious issue with the way it’s being spent.”

(Zind) In one telling vote, a proposal to add money to the budget almost won support before the budget itself was defeated.

Even though it’s still a receiving town, School Board Chairman Greg Hughes says rising property values and declining enrollment have negated Act 60’s benefits. While many Bethel voters were unhappy with the board’s proposed budget, Hughes says Act 60 is at the heart of the town’s school funding problems.

(Hughes) “I think the message is to Montpelier that Act 60 is very broken and if they do nothing else during this legislative session, it needs to be fixed.”

(Zind) The budget was defeated by wide margin. The school board will now rework the numbers and return to voters with a new plan.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Bethel.

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