The budget was defeated in both towns on Town Meeting day in March, with Whitingham voters rejecting the $9.4 million budget 155 to 64. Wilmington residents voted 160 to 114 against the budget. The proposed 2018 budget was significantly lower than the current budget – including about $260,000 in spending reductions and nearly $500,000 in cost shifting. But thanks to a loss of “equalized pupils,” and a drop in the common level of appraisal in both towns, tax rates were slated to shoot up by double digits. Before Town Meeting, Whitingham Selectboard members urged voters in both towns to turn down the budget to “send the state a message” that local taxpayers could not afford the tax increases.
During Town Meeting voters in both towns praised the school board for reducing costs, and railed against the state government and its education funding formula that, they said, is stacked against rural schools.
Following the Town Meeting vote, however, local officials learned that Twin Valley’s budget was one of only eight school budgets that failed across the state, and concluded that state legislators were unlikely to take notice of further negative budget votes.
“Not much notice was taken that we turned down the budget,” said school board member John Doty. “The desired effect was to get them to take notice and adjust the funding formula. But there are some efforts under way to help us get back our ‘phantom students’ and small schools grant. The argument is that schools get to keep those incentives if they consolidate under Act 46, and we’re being punished because we consolidated before Act 46. Our legislators are pushing for some adjustments on that.”
The 2018 budget approved this week was cut by another $68,000, for a total budget of $9,376,820 – an overall reduction of $815,861 less than the current budget. But despite the additional cuts, Whitingham homestead tax rate payers still face a rate increase of 37 cents, and Wilmington homestead rate payers will see a 19-cent increase in the rate.
At a public informational meeting in Whitingham this week, voters appeared more concerned that the additional cuts could place programs in peril, or increase future maintenance costs. But board members assured voters that the recent reductions were based on an analysis of current and past expenses, and the temporary deferment of planned equipment upgrades to the school’s security camera system.
Whitingham resident Richard Lemaire asked board members when the district would no longer have to pay for maintenance of the former Twin Valley High School building in Wilmington.
Some meeting attendees suggested that, if there was a floor vote on the budget, they might move to increase the budget by $68,000. But former Whitingham board member Mary Lemaire thanked the board for taking a critical look at the budget before warning it again. “The board made a real effort,” she said. “I know it’s only $68,000, but that’s still a lot, and I think it means a lot to voters that you didn’t ignore us, and you didn’t come back with the same budget – or more. I think you have done a fantastic job.”
In other developments, the board announced that the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union’s articles of agreement under Act 46 have been approved by the Vermont Agency of Education, and will go before the state board of education next week for final approval before they are presented to voters. If approved by local voters, the articles would create a single K-8 district serving the towns of Halifax, Readsboro, and Stamford, and Twin Valley School District would become a unified union school district, eliminating the Wilmington and Whitingham “ghost” districts that currently exist under the Twin Valley joint contract.
Board members have discussed a tentative vote date of May 23 for Whitingham and Wilmington, pending official approval by the state board of education next week. The board will also schedule informational meetings on the plan.