FAIR HAVEN — Slate Valley school leaders say they believe the defeat of the district’s operating budget in March was the result of voters being heavily against a separate $60 million bond vote, which also failed.
On June 9, voters in the Slate Valley Unified Union School District will have the chance to vote once again on a $26,623,041 budget. A budget for the same amount was defeated at Town Meeting Day by 95 votes with 1,585 voting “no” and 1,490 voting “yes.”
The $60 million bond vote, which would have paid for a near-complete overhaul of the district’s infrastructure, was defeated by a far wider margin. Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell said the district is no longer looking at a bond, and has no immediate plans to revisit the issue. She said the planned expenses for the coming school year are essentially the same as they were in March, with changes being made to revenue projections.
“We’ve added an additional $100,000 of prior year surplus into the budget and we increased the projection on our special education reimbursement based on some updated information from the Agency of Education,” she said Wednesday. “That brought our budget down. If we just look at education spending, it is $51,586 less than fiscal year 2020, however when you look at spending per equalized pupil it is an increase of 2.99% based on the change in equalized pupils. It is still well below the state average.”
She said the estimated average spending per equalized pupil in Vermont is $17,133. In the Slate Valley district, it’s $16,553.
What this means for taxpayers is hard to say, she said, given the state has yet to finalize figures that will determine school taxes. She said it will also vary by town, as their common levels of appraisals will be different.
“We have an informational meeting scheduled for June 8, that’ll be a virtual meeting, so this information will be provided on our website, and it’s in the warning,” she said. “And we’re planning to send information home to taxpayers.”
The re-vote will take place during a global pandemic. While restrictions are being lifted and public health guidelines are being eased, the COVID-19 virus has disrupted nearly every aspect of life nationwide.
“I think the board feels, and I think the administration feels, that we made significant modifications in the expenditure budget we presented to taxpayers in March,” said Olsen-Farrell
“I think the reason it went down is because it was associated with the bond that we had out at the same time, and I really want to be clear with taxpayers that this is just our operational budget, it has absolutely nothing to do with the bond. There’s no cost included with the bond, it is our operational budget for the next school year,” she added.
She said that should the budget fail a second time, there won’t be much left to cut from it besides things the district isn’t legally required to have, that being transportation and extracurricular activities.
Chairman of the Slate Valley district board of directors, Tim Smith, said Wednesday he agrees with Olsen-Farrell that the budget’s defeat was likely tied to the bond failure, but given the COVID-19 pandemic came about between Town Meeting Day and now, it’s hard to say what voters will do on June 9. He said the board has been meeting regularly, if remotely, and has done its best to trim costs as much as possible. As far as voting goes, the secretary of state had released guidelines on alternative voting measures town clerks can use, said Olsen-Farrell. She said there are six towns in the Slate Valley district. Clerks can opt for a few different voting methods aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. She said clerks are considering those options now.
“We did decide that we did not want to be mailing a ballot to every active registered voter,” said Olsen-Farrell. “It’s very difficult to get accurate addresses, it’s a huge cost to the school district to do that, so instead we’re going to really promote absentee ballots, getting folks to request a ballot for early voting which is fine.”
She said the district will be posting information to its website, slatevalleyunified.org
Last week, Department of Finance and Management Commissioner Adam Greshin floated a plan to the legislature that would have required all the state’s school districts vote once more on their budgets, given the votes happened prior to the financial damage caused by COVID-19 control measures. It’s doubtful it will affect Fair Haven, or any other district, he said.
“It does not appear the Legislature is much interested in looking at the spending side of the deficit,” said Greshin in an email. “The administration’s idea, which we put on the table in good faith in a brainstorming session, is not poised to grow legs. The idea would have left it to school districts to re-vote their budgets. In the Fair Haven example, they could re-vote in August or simply take into account the new revenue picture for the upcoming vote.”