Voters reject some school budgets, Act 60

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(Host) Town meeting voters were frustrated over rising tax rates and turned down more than 30 school budgets on Tuesday. Voters in some towns responded to calls to reject budgets in order to send a message to Montpelier about the Act 60 school funding law.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) From the Northeast Kingdom to Windham County, voters on Tuesday put their school budgets under a microscope. In some cases, they didn’t like what they saw.

Burlington voters rejected a proposed $32.2 million budget. The school spending plan would have required a 26-cent increase in the school tax rate. Budgets in Barre and Montpelier also went down to defeat. Voters also turned down budgets in Proctor, Rutland Town, Williston, Milton, and Reading, among others.

Jeff Francis of the Vermont Superintendents Association says school officials tried to hold the line on spending. But, he says, a combination of factors drove the tax rates higher this year, including the way Act 60 accounts for a rise in property values.

(Francis) “We have in some cases fairly modest budget increases, but fairly dramatic tax rate increases associated with the common level of appraisal and increasing property values. We have a dynamic at play where there seems to be organized and outspoken opposition in communities like Montpelier and Burlington that are directed toward the school spending plans specifically. And then we’ve got a dynamic at play statewide where people are saying, consider rejecting your budget as a protest vote against Act 60.”

(Dillon) But some budgets went down even in towns that benefit from Act 60. In West Charleston, a Northeast Kingdom community that receives state funding under the law, voters rejected the budget for the elementary school that serves 130 students. School Board Member Carole Pouliot Piper says she heard people say they wanted to tell Montpelier that the school funding law isn’t working:

(Piper) “They think by voting down a budget you’re sending a message to the Legislature. Well, when you’re a receiving town, you’re not really sending much of a message for your local students. You’re voting against what your elected officials have worked on for how many meetings, and how many months?”

(Dillon) Pouliot Piper says the budget was already tight. She says many costs were out of the school board’s control.

(Piper) “I don’t know where we’re going to cut next, at this point. Health insurance alone went up 19%t. Our school is a K though 8, and we don’t have many extras to begin with.”

(Dillon) Many voters chose to support budgets, despite dramatic increases in property taxes. In Peacham, the school tax rate may go up by 29%, despite a level-funded budget. That’s because of a huge jump in health insurance rates, the Act 60 appraisal issue and other factors. Yet Peacham supported the budget by 19 votes. Voters say they hope the Legislature will reform Act 60, and that their tax rate increase will be less than 29%.

In the Mad River Valley, Act 60 was a hot issue. Yet voters in Waitsfield, Fayston and Warren all approved their school budgets. Waitsfield School Board Chairman Chris Brynga says the town supports its elementary school, even though voters are frustrated with the state school funding law:

(Brynga) “This town has always, in my tenure on the board, has been very supportive of all our budgets, whether they’ve been small increases or large increases, mostly because they’re very involved with the school and put a high value on education.”

(Dillon) Waitsfield, like other towns in the Mad River Valley, supported a resolution that says officials should consider withholding a portion of the school property taxes to protest Act 60.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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