Article 2 of the school district meeting warning asks voters to approve the expenditure of $45,000 next year to establish the International Baccalaureate Program, and $31,500 in subsequent years to sustain the program. School board chair Richard Werner explained that the program was an internationally recognized method of interdisciplinary instruction. “In the ‘90s we spent a lot of time on language arts, then we spent more time on math and science skills,” he said. “Now we’re looking to combine all of those items.” He said the program would help maintain Dover’s high scores on statewide standardized tests.
Werner said the cost of the program would include $20,000 for teacher training, a $12,500 stipend for a program coordinator, a $10,000 application fee, and $1,200 to pay substitutes while teachers are in training.
The program fits the common core requirements that the state will require, Werner said, and the program has cachet for students who are going on to certain secondary schools or colleges. “This is something we could do on our own, but this buys accreditation,” he said. “It’s recognized by other schools.”
But the program could be affected by changes in legislation currently under consideration in Montpelier. If the changes would affect Dover School’s governance, Werner said, the board might choose not to institute the program. “We’ll keep track of what the state is doing, and it may be something we would back out of if it wouldn’t make sense to train all our educators for something we have no control over,” he said.
Article 3 asks voters to approve $20,000 to hire a consultant to work with the school board and building committee to produce recommendations and cost estimates to “enhance, enlarge, and better utilize the school building as a school and community resource.” Werner explained that the school’s final bond payment will be made in December 2015. “It was suggested that if we want to look into some changes or improvements to the school, we should start looking now, so that when the bond is up we can use that money.”
Article 4 asks voters to approve the payment of up to $15,400 in tuition for students attending an approved independent school. A similar article has appeared on the warning for the past two years. The amount is equal to Burr & Burton Academy’s tuition, and allows Dover students to attend that school with no additional cost to parents. Parents sending students to independent schools with higher tuition must supplement the school district’s payment. If the article isn’t approved, the school district would only pay the statewide average tuition, about $13,752.
Werner said that Article 9, asking voters to approve a budget of $2,701,503, had been warned before the board received additional information from the state. He said there would be a motion at Town Meeting to reduce the warned figure by about $9,000, to $2,691,035.
Selectboard candidate William “Buzzy” Buswell asked how statewide property tax increases would affect Dover taxpayers. “If you look into your crystal ball, how screwed are we going to be on the property tax?” he asked. “Last year it was 5 cents, this year they’re saying 7 cents.”
Werner said that, under Article 10, the school district could offset the increases. The article asks voters to approve a transfer of up to $330,000 from the capital reserve fund to reduce taxes. “We’re not going to get screwed at all,” Werner said. “We’ll maintain the tax rate.”
Without the transfer, Werner said, the homestead tax rate would go from $1.49 to $1.64. “That’s with the 7 cent increase from the state. A transfer of $217,000 allows a tax rate that’s a 10th of a cent higher than last year. We’re asking for $330,000 in case the state does away with the small schools grant. That would be a $75,000 hit on us.”
Article 11 proposes an informal discussion on moving Town Meeting to a different time or date to encourage more participation. But Werner said subsequent research suggests that changing Town Meeting would not be an effective strategy to encourage more voter participation. He referred to a book by Vermont academics Susan Clark and Frank Bryan called “All Those in Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community.” According to the authors’ findings, Werner said, changing Town Meeting to Saturdays or evenings didn’t result in higher turnout. “The things that bring people out are when they feel invited and welcomed,” Werner said, “or if there’s something controversial. If we included an article to pay the school board chair $2 million for the rest of his life, we might get some people out to vote against that. Or for it.”
Werner suggested the town mail the warning and a cover letter to voters, or consider providing a free community lunch or day care to increase participation.
Article 12, another nonbinding article, is an opportunity for voters to hear a report from the lobbyist hired by the town to “prevent bad things” from happening. But according to school board member Laura Sibilia, there may be some “bad things” under consideration. “There’s talk about tinkering with a lot of things, like income sensitivity and getting rid of the small schools grant,” she said.
But both Sibilia and Werner said the lobbying effort has changed the discussion in Montpelier. Werner said legislators are taking Dover’s concerns seriously. Sibilia said some of the discussion focuses on the issues Dover has been discussing. “There does seem to be a lot of language about quality, and equalizing opportunity,” she said. “People are beginning to realize it’s not equitable, and that it’s not going to be able to stay this way for long. It’s nerve-wracking, but I think we’re going to see some big changes. We’re thinking about how we can protect our school and taxpayers.
One reason more legislators may be interested in discussing education funding, Sibilia said, is that more towns are, like Dover, facing tax increases even while holding the line on their budgets. Few towns have Dover’s ability to offset tax increases with capital funds. “Our budget has gone down this year, and the tax rate is going up, and it’s the same in a lot of towns,” she said. “Meanwhile you’ve got the governor asking voters to take a magnifying glass to school budgets because (the tax increase) is our fault. It’s not; it’s a state problem. And now it’s happening around the state.”
Municipal articles on the warning garnered little discussion from meeting attendees. Selectboard chair Randy Terk noted that Article 16, the general fund budget of $2,128,593.86, represented a 7% increase over last year’s budget, and the highway department budget under Article 17, for $1,245,163.97, was a 4% increase over the previous year.
Under Article 21, to raise and appropriate $65,000 for the town’s legal defense fund, Buswell expressed his preference that the money be used for a lawsuit, rather than the lobbyist discussed earlier in the meeting. “The word we keep misremembering is legal defense fund,” he said. “It was set up to fight the statewide property tax. We need to look for an action to take against the state. We can’t be pussyfooting around like we have been.”
Werner said that the work of the lobbyist has had results. “You paid less in taxes last year than you would have if the lobbyist hadn’t been there,” he said. “The (elimination of the) small schools grant was a done deal, but they were able to get that put back in.”
Dover’s Town Meeting will be held at the Town Hall on Dover Common starting at 10 am on Tuesday, March 4.