Hartford to vote in April on school budget and bond

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-29-2024 7:00 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — The voting on the 2024-25 Hartford school budget and a $21 million school renovation proposal has been moved to April.

On Wednesday, the Hartford School Board made plans to reschedule the votes — originally planned for next Tuesday — to Monday, April 15, the deadline this year for school district’s to adopt a budget.

Voters next Tuesday still will elect school officials, including two open seats on the School Board, where Nancy Russell and Garrett Wilson are running uncontested. But all spending questions, as well an article seeking approval of changes to the town and school charter, will be delayed about six week.

State lawmakers recently gave school districts the authority to put off annual budget votes this year to allow school boards more time to reconsider their budget proposals. Lawmakers were concerned that school spending around the state is on an unsustainable trajectory.

Hartford’s budget proposal of $52.4 million was predicted to result in a nearly 40% property tax increase. Now, it is among several school districts in the Upper Valley to reschedule its vote.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Superintendent Tom DeBalsi said accommodating the board’s effort to limit the tax increase will require cutting the budget by $2.5 million, or about 5% of the total.

DeBalsi said that he is still working on a list of proposed cuts but would be able to present them to the School Board next week.

“It’s still really devastating to think about reductions and cuts (in areas) where we’ve worked so hard to build them, but we are being very thoughtful and careful about what we are considering,” he said.

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The School Board plans to finalize its budget proposal and the school warning at a meeting on March 13.

Vermont statute requires that the warning be posted at least 30 days before the vote on the articles.

One known spending reduction is the elimination of a second superintendent position, which the board decided last week not to pursue. The board had intended to hire a new superintendent to overlap one year with DeBalsi, who plans to retire at the end of the 2024-2025 school year.

The board’s plan, which would have cost $218,000 in additional salary and benefits, was heavily criticized by school administrators, faculty and staff, who contended that a second administrator would create confusion about who was in charge and was wasting funding that was needed elsewhere in the schools.

Voters in April also will also be asked to consider a proposed $21 million bond, which would fund district-wide repairs and improvements over the next several years, as well the development of a long-term facilities plan to help the district anticipate future building needs based on student enrollment trends.

Board members decided to keep the bond article on the warning, despite concerns expressed by some residents about the tax impact of the proposal in a year of budgetary uncertainty.

Some of the projects the bond is intended to fund include heating and ventilation system upgrades, roof replacements, stormwater management and fire safety compliance issues.

“Personally, as both a board member and a taxpayer I think this is the right way to handle this because construction costs are not going to go down,” said School Board member Sara Campbell.

The April warning also will ask voters to approve a series of amendments to the Hartford municipal charter, including changes to the duties and term lengths of elected officials such as the town moderator and town clerk.

The proposed charter amendments must receive voter approval on both the town and school warnings because the changes would impact both the municipality and the school district.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.