Following opening ceremonies that included a local Cub Scout pack leading the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance, moderator Leon Corse turned the floor over to attorneys James Valente and Adam Waite. They updated the audience about the town’s suit against the state education funding formulas, Act 60 and Act 68 (see article on page A6).
In all, voters approved more than 30 articles in a meeting that lasted just shy of five hours, including an hourlong lunch break in the middle of the user fee discussion. That issue was by far the the most important and heated debate of the day.
The user fee became a contentious issue after the selectboard decided not to include a warning in this year’s Town Meeting articles asking for an appropriation for the user fees. In the past, Whitingham has made a $110,000 payment to compensate the school district for use of the school building for community functions. This also helped lower the town’s school tax rate.
According to a handout presented at Town Meeting, the selectboard said the town’s auditors had asked for a contract between the school and town to spell out how the $110,000 would be used. The board also raised concerns that the payment may jeopardize a lawsuit against the state of Vermont over education funding, and that with the formal consolidation of the Twin Valley district under Act 46 it was time to separate the town budget from the school district.
Article 2 asked voters to approve $557,044 for general fund expenditures. School board member John Doty requested an amendment to add $100,000 to the article for the user fee for the school.
“We do have a disagreement between the school board and the selectboard about the user fee,” said Doty. “By taking my suggestion, your taxes will go down by a penny and a half.”
“In April 2017, the selectboard sent a letter to the school board and the supervisory union asking for a contract, a rental agreement, that lists the uses of the fees,” said selectboard member Greg Brown. “We don’t know what the money has been used for.”
“Mr. Brown, I understand we are working on presenting those papers to you,” said school board member Sharon Berry.
“I appreciate your efforts,” replied Brown. “My question is, why wasn’t it addressed in April?”
“I want to make sure everybody understands the impact of this amendment,” said school board member Seth Boyd. “The $100,000 is accounted for in the school budget. You’re reducing the school budget by $100,000.”
“There’s no point in talking about it now,” said Sherry Adams. “According to papers Greg read, I think we should go along with their budget the way they presented it. The town budget is the town budget. I think the school board is going to have to bite the bullet this year. I think we should leave this the way it is, I don’t think we should do anything to lose that lawsuit. For once, I want to win a lawsuit. I’d like something to change.”
“ I don’t think it’s helpful that the town and the school board are not working well together,” said Gretchen Havreluk.
“I’m confused about the selectboard meeting minutes of December 8,” said Susan Johnson. “There was no written discussion or vote by the board to remove the warning. It was a sly move. I do agree with Greg they should have provided the information, but I support the amendment.”
“The bottom line here is, we’re here to protect the voters of the town,” said selectboard member Karl Twitchell. “Over the past 20 years, we’ve slid into a gray area. Now we’re fighting over a penny and a half, with less than 100 people making that decision. I’m thinking this is the year, let’s draw a line in the sand. It’s a unified school, the school is a different meeting, we can’t really discuss it any more.”
“I’m not trying to make excuses,” said school board member Aimee Reed. “But the boards have had a real plateful. They have a $500,000 to $600,000 budget that they have control over. We have a $9.2 million budget that is really dictated by the state. Again, I’m not trying to make excuses, but I do take exception to the dressing down we’re getting from the selectboard.”
At that point, Corse called for a lunch recess. Following the break, the discussion over the $100,000 amendment continued.
“I don’t believe anybody was ambushed,” said selectboard member Robin Kingsley when the meeting reconvened. “We sent letters with our request.”
“In a year when we are going to be under an intense microscope by the state it seems like the wrong year to push the limit,” said John Robohm. “We ought to not vote in support of this amendment.”
“I work in this building and have children in the district,” said Heather Woods. “We are using this building right now, and it makes sense to me to document what the building is used for. But dropping this without giving the school more time to plan their budget is wrong.”
“For the last three years,” said Brown, “this has been a sticking point with our paid auditors, about not having the proper paperwork.”
Corse then called for a vote on the amendment by paper ballot. The amendment failed, 33 yes, 39 no, and one blank ballot. Article 2 was then passed as originally written by voice vote.
The remainder of the meeting was relatively calm.
Voters heard from Rep. John Gannon, who gave a short synopsis of events and bills taking place at the Statehouse in Montpelier. He said that plans to overhaul the state’s school funding formula were taking shape, but that he was skeptical about their merits.
“There’s a new proposal, bill H911, that provides income tax benefits and has education changes,” said Gannon. “I’m concerned it will actually accelerate property tax pressures over time. There’s no tax analysis yet, which makes it hard to analyze what the bill will do.”
Article 6, which asked voters to approve the highway budget, became a bit of a math challenge for the audience.
Highway department head Stanley Janovsky asked for an amendment to the article to compensate for a $134.64 change in anticipated revenues. As Corse attempted to add and subtract numbers in the article for the amendment, there was confusion on the total.
“Perhaps I heard the numbers wrong,” said Robohm. “Do they come out?”
“I would agree, the numbers don’t add up to the total,” said Corse.
“Did I screw it up?” asked Janovsky.
“I thought you were trying to spend that 100 grand we just didn’t vote for,” quipped Rod Bemis.
After some laughter and a calculator, the numbers were corrected and the amendment to the article approved.