Windsor Southeast school boards make cuts to reduce tax hikes

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-29-2024 8:00 PM

Modified: 03-04-2024 11:45 AM


HARTLAND — Each board within the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union is playing its part in a last-minute effort to reduce demands on the state education fund in what has become a zero-sum game of educational funding this year.

School budget votes for the Mount Ascutney School District, which includes Windsor and West Windsor, and the Hartland School District have been delayed until April.

Weathersfield’s school board also has postponed its budget vote, though a new date has not yet been set.

The delays come on the heels of a statewide change to the school funding formula made less than two weeks before Vermont Town Meeting Day next Tuesday. Last Thursday, Gov. Phil Scott signed legislation allowing districts to reschedule their votes and providing compensation for the cost of holding delayed elections.

The hope is that school boards throughout the state will make enough cuts to lower education spending, which will then lower tax rates.

“The narrative released by many state officials talking to the press is that school boards padded their budgets to take advantage of the previous funding formula,” Hartland School Board Chairwoman Nicole Buck said in a public statement on Hartland’s community Listserv Monday.

But there is “no padding to remove,” she said.

“We have some very difficult decisions ahead of us and very little time to make them.”

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Surrounded by colorful bookshelves in the Albert Bridge School library Tuesday night, the Mount Ascutney board tried to distinguish between “must-have” essential budget items and “nice-to-have” things they could tolerate moving to the chopping block.

The budget initially approved by the board in January was $15.5 million, a 13% increase over last year’s school budget.

“Everything we provide takes away something else,” Mount Ascutney board member Bill Yates said.

In the end, the board decided it could live with a leaky high school roof, the loss of two elementary school teachers and a lack of air conditioning in parts of the Windsor building as they shaved more than $500,000, or 3.8%, from the proposed budget.

“We will do with what we have but that comes at a cost,” Mount Ascutney board member Rebecca Roisman said.

Speaking to 50 or so residents in Damon Hall in Hartland Tuesday night, Buck, the Hartland board chairwoman, tried to explain this year’s perfect storm of costs and circumstances that have led to a 15.5% increase in the school budget from last year and a steep 35% projected increase in Hartland’s property taxes.

“There is not a lot of wiggle room in the budget,” she said.

With mental health and behavioral challenges increasing among students, Hartland would like to keep two staff positions that were previously paid through pandemic-related federal funding.

But it also has a playground that is so outdated that part of it is cordoned off because it’s too dangerous for kids to use.

To keep the budget the same from this year to next would require $1.5 million in cuts, which would include the playground and 10 of the school’s 29 teachers. “At that point, you don’t really have a school,” Buck said.

During the public comment portion of the Hartland meeting, several residents commended the School Board for its hard work and expressed confusion and concern over the alarming level of tax increases.

“Point blank, this is unsustainable,” Hartland resident Rob Sangster said. “I’m voting no on this budget, not against the School Board, but because we need to send a message to the state.”

In a meeting immediately following the information session, the Hartland board decided to remove a Spanish teacher, instructional coach and broken locker replacements from its budget.

Instead of replacing the playground, it will expend the minimum required to keep the existing equipment safe. The total savings for all of the cuts is just over $400,000, which is a 3.9% decrease from the original budget of$11,541,99.

“Voting no only hurts kids. It doesn’t send a message to the state,” board member Heather Vonada said.

The Hartland School District will hold school budget ballot voting on April 2 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in Damon Hall.

An informational meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, March 26, at 7 p.m.

The Mount Ascutney School District will hold school budget ballot voting on April 2 from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Windsor Municipal Building and West Windsor’s Story Memorial Hall. An informational meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, March 27, at 6 p.m. at the Windsor School, Room 210.

Weathersfield’s School Board will hold a special meeting on Saturday, March 2, to discuss the budget and set new dates for voting and an informational meeting. The meeting will take place at 10 a.m. at the Weathersfield School, 135 Schoolhouse Rd in Ascutney.

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan@vnews.com or 603-727-3208.

CORRECTION: At the Hartland School District’s annual meeting on Feb. 27, School Board member Heather Vonada said that “voting no only hurts kids, it doesn’t send a message to the state.” Part of the quotation was incorrect in a previous version of this story.