Failed Barre budget's bottom line is on the rise
BARRE — The finance committee of Barre’s budget-challenged school board just welcomed three new members, elected one of them chair, and was presented with two detail-free proposals — both calling for spending more than the $54 million figure voters in Barre and Barre Town collectively rejected on Town Meeting Day.
One of the administrative proposals would boost spending in the pre-K-12 district by 5%. The other reflects a 6.5% increase. Both call for spending significantly more than the just-failed version that divided the board and fueled a protest vote led by those — including then-board chair Sonya Spaulding — who believed it was far too lean.
Spaulding, who was replaced as chair of the board by Giuliano Cecchinelli II last week, was elected chair of the finance committee on Thursday night.
The committee, which includes two citizen representatives, didn’t weigh in on either alternative, and it doesn’t appear the panel will play a substantive role in a second round of deliberations that will set the stage for a May 9 revote.
The committee’s next scheduled meeting is April 17 and by then Superintendent Chris Hennessey told members some version of the budget — one he hopes will enjoy broad support — must be adopted by the board.
Though the date for the revote was still a moving target last week, Hennessey said it will be held in conjunction with the Barre Town’s annual municipal elections on May 9. That, he said, will mean shifting the city’s polling place from the Barre Municipal Auditorium, which is rented that day, to the Old Labor Hall on Granite Street.
Hennessey said the availability of the labor hall and City Clerk Carol Dawes’ assurance it is a suitable substitute for the auditorium, enabled him to answer two key questions with respect to the looming revote. The board will answer a third when it will be asked to settle on a bottom line for the budget and approve the warning for the special election during a yet-to-be-scheduled special meeting.
Hennessey said school administrators, who met to discuss the budget on Wednesday, understand the stakes are high.
“We … know that May 9 is a very important date,” he said. “We want the support of the community on this. We want the support of the entire board. We want to work with folks, and we know this is an incredibly sensitive issue.”
The latter explains what some viewed as a head-scratching decision to advance two different proposals — both more expensive than the last and one pricier than the other.
Though both remain a work in progress, Hennessey said the two proposals will give the recently reconfigured board options and an opportunity to reach agreement.
“It’s really important that the whole board gets behind it,” he said of whatever budget figure is ultimately approved.
That didn’t happen in January, when the board narrowly approved the since rejected $54 million budget that reflected the 1.5% increase recommended by its finance committee.
The process fueled frustration and finger-pointing from those on both sides of the budget divide, and saw Spaulding and others urge its defeat.
Aided by those who voted against the budget because they thought the 1.5% increase was excessive, the effort succeeded when the budget failed, 1,710-1,157, on Town Meeting Day.
The presentation to the committee was short on specifics, and School Director Paul Malone said he hoped complete drafts of the budget could be prepared for the board’s review in advance of next week’s meeting.
Hennessey warned that might not be possible, while acknowledging Malone’s observation that the second draft of the budget, which was prepared in January, reflected a 6.67% increase and administrators responded to the finance committee’s January request for 1.5% budget with a 4.97% alternative.
“These bottom-line numbers are fairly in line with previous drafts, we just want to make sure … we get this right,” he said, adding brief summaries of both budgets could be prepared by next week even if the line-by-line versions aren’t ready.
Spaulding said while a narrative would suffice for those eager to know the status of previously identified cuts, she acknowledged others on the board and in the community are hungrier for more detail.
“We might need to do both because we need to be able to say, ‘This is what this budget looks like,’ and ‘This is what this budget looks like.’”
That kind of clarity will likely be necessary because it sounds like administrators are revisiting cuts made much earlier on in the process, and it isn’t as simple as adding back the last batch of reductions that were needed to trim the increase from the 4.97% reluctantly proposed by administrators and the 1.5% recommended by the finance committee.
Business Manager Lisa Perreault hinted some of that last round of reductions may not be restored under either of the proposals now being discussed.
“We had a long list of reductions to get to a 1.5% (increase) and what we were able to do … is move and shift many of those reductions back into the 6.5 (percent version of the budget) and some of them into the 5 (percent alternative).”
Meanwhile, Hennessey acknowledged savings identified by the finance committee prior to Town Meeting Day can also be added to the mix, potentially making the budget more palatable.
Among other things, the committee flagged a $91,000 lease payment for a lighting project voters just agreed to pay off in its entirety, and $25,000 in property insurance that shifts to the now-autonomous Central Vermont Career Center School District for the space it uses on the Spaulding High School campus.
Hennessey said providing the requested information wouldn’t be a problem, but “timing” was an issue.
School Director Terry Reil suggested postponing tentative plans to schedule a month-ending special board meeting into the first week of April would buy time needed for administrators to prepare complete drafts of each budget and board members ample time to review them before making a decision.