BARRE — Strike two!
A School Board hoping for redemption had to settle for rejection instead on Tuesday as voters in Barre and Barre Town collectively doubled down on their Town Meeting Day defeat of a $50.5 million school spending proposal.
On a day when more than 2,800 ballots were cast between the two communities the difference between passing and failing was an excruciatingly close 12 votes.
A slightly reduced version of the board’s failed budget failed again, 1,407-1,395, forcing school directors, who meet Thursday night, to prepare for yet another special election next month.
The results, which came in waves, were profoundly disappointing to the board chair, Sonya Spaulding, who said she didn’t relish the prospect of a third vote.
“Back to the drawing board,” she said, noting Thursday night’s agenda will be revised to reflect current events.
“It will be added,” she said of the budget. “It will be discussed.”
Spaulding watched as poll workers in the chilly B.O.R. Ice Arena literally counted the $50.4 million budget out.
Though Barre Town’s machine-tabulated results were available moments after the polls closed at 7 p.m. the hand count in Barre took nearly 45 minutes and effectively sealed the budget’s fate.
Not because the budget didn’t pass in the city — it did — but because it didn’t pass by enough.
Like Town Meeting Day, the early returns from Barre Town were ominous. On a day when 1,732 of the town’s 6,300 registered voters cast ballots, the budget narrowly failed, 903-829.
However, hope that Barre voters would wipe out that 74-vote margin and reverse the result fizzled as soon as City Carol Dawes announced the result of the hand count.
As it did in March, the budget passed in Barre, 566-504.
Though the margin of victory in Barre was wider than it was on Town Meeting Day and the deficit in Barre Town was smaller, the end result was the same. The Barre Unified Union School District remains without a voter-approved school budget despite coming oh-so-close to moving on.
Spaulding paced in the near-empty B.O.R. as poll workers in teams of two counted and recounted ballots in stacks of 50.
Four of the first 10 stacks were evenly divided — 25 “yes” and 25 “no” — and most of the rest were reasonably evenly divided. Still the budget was up by 55 votes in the city with 150 ballots left to count. The margin eventually swelled to 62 — too little to overcome the 74-deficit in the town, but more than enough to make School Director Guy Isabelle’s post-poll closing prediction prophetic.
“(Expletive deleted) it’s going to be close,” Isabelle texted Spaulding after learning the results in Barre Town.
Close it was, but Spaulding said, close wasn’t good enough.
“I’m disappointed,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m surprised.”
Despite a push to pass the budget, the fact that it failed in Barre Town in March was perplexing given the voting history of that community when it comes to school spending.
Opinions were mixed among voters who cast ballots in person at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School on Tuesday.
Town resident Tim Tanner offered a harsh critique of a district where his child is an eighth grader at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School, but won’t be attending Spaulding High School in the fall.
“My daughter is several years behind in her education and obviously COVID has only made it worse,” he said. “They don’t really bend over backwards for anybody.”
It is why, Tanner said, he voted “no” in March and again on Tuesday.
“I’m not exactly a well-known person, I’m not a popular person. I’m just a person who pays my taxes and I don’t think I get the services that are deserved for what I pay for,” he said. “My daughter will be exercising school choice and leaving the district next year.”
One town voter who asked that her name not be used couldn’t have been more candid when asked how she voted.
“Angrily yes,” she said, noting she was a “no” vote in March, but has children in the system and didn’t want teachers to suffer because she doesn’t like the trajectory of school spending in a district that was the product of a state-mandated merger.
“It just feels like it continues to grow astronomically,” she said of the budget’s bottom line.
Town resident Tim Belcher’s vote didn’t change between March and May and he was comfortable supporting the budget proposed by the School Board.
“I trust them to make those difficult decisions and I understand government needs to be paid for,” he said.
Voters were fewer and farther between in the city, which didn’t have municipal elections as an added draw on Tuesday. Still, a random sampling of voters yielded similarly mixed opinions.
“Hell yes!” one Barre woman said when asked how she voted on the only question that was on the ballot in Barre. “It was ‘yes’ in March and it’s still ‘yes’ today.”
The woman provided her name, but asked that it not be used because while she was crystal clear about how she felt about the school budget, she acknowledged others feel differently and she’d prefer not to draw their fire.
“The vote is not about this year,” she said. “It’s about next year. It’s about the kids.”
Another Barre voter was far less talkative, didn’t share her name, but when asked how she voted provided a one-word answer.
“No,” she said, noting the vote she cast while driving through the arena on Tuesday mirrored the one she cast on the floor of the Barre Municipal Auditorium in March.
“It was ‘no’ then too,” she said, before driving off.
Jen Chioldi, a former member of the Barre School Board, broke the tie.
“I voted ‘yes,’” said Chioldi. “I’m supportive of our schools.”
On a day when voters in the two-town, three-school district were near-evenly divided, Chioldi was in the minority.
BARRE TOWN — Everything passed except for the school budget and there’s a new town clerk after Tuesday’s election.
Tina Lunt defeated Caitlin Janus 1,060-605 to replace Town Clerk Donna Kelty who retired after 32 years of service to the town.
Lunt is an administrative assistant at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School, a position she’s held for 8 years.
She took her oath of office shortly after Kelty read off the vote totals and was congratulated by Janus. She said she was excited and nervous.
“It’s been a long journey,” Lunt said. “I’ve got a big smile on under this mask.”
In other elections, Select Board members Norma Malone and Jack Mitchell ran unopposed for their three-year and two-year seats respectively. Sue Paxman defeated Fred Thumm 1,283-293 for a three year term as auditor.
While Tuesday’s vote was on its normal schedule, it also included a revote of the Barre Unified Union School District’s budget which was voted down in March. Town residents voted the budget down again 829-903.
The town budget passed 1,342-379 and the highway budget passed 1,537-188. The combined budgets of $7,381,821 are an increase of $153,625, or 2.12%, over the current budgets.
Residents approved a measure asking if the first tax payment of the year could be moved out a month from Aug. 15 to Sept. 15 by a vote of 1,634-82. Officials said this change was needed because the state pushed back its filing deadline a month for homestead declarations and property tax credit claims.
Kelty said there are 6,306 residents on the town’s voter checklist. She said 1,328 of them sent in an absentee ballot and another 419 voted in person. Ballots were sent out to all registered voters except those who registered to vote after Town Meeting Day because Tuesday’s vote had to follow the same procedures as the March vote.
Kelty said turnout was pretty good for a local election.
She said she was busy running the show and talking to residents Tuesday so it hadn’t really sunk in that it was her last election. Kelty is staying on in an advisory role until the end of June to help Lunt get up to speed.
“And I don’t really expect it to (sink in) in all honesty until probably July when I have that full month off. Then things might change a little,” she said.
WILLIAMSTOWN — What started out as a quiet night devolved into a shouting match Monday when the Select Board tried not to get sucked into a long-running landlord-tenant dispute.
It isn’t clear the board succeeded, after a heated back-and-forth that began with Chairman Rodney Graham recusing himself.
Moments later, Graham, a local lawmaker who serves as the town health officer as well, came under verbal assault by a disgruntled tenant and things went downhill from there. The renter, Jason Cadorette, told board members he had been advised by a tenants’ advocate to meet with them because of the “… inability of the town health officer to do his job correctly.”
Cadorette said Graham ignored what he claimed were “two patches of black mold” during a February inspection of his Route 14 apartment. The presence of the “mold,” he said, has since forced his girlfriend to move and Graham’s failure to “sign” the inspection report invalidated the now-dated document and complicated efforts to secure housing for her.
Also, Cadorette accused Graham of downplaying his claim that power to his apartment had been “cut” and the toilet wasn’t functioning properly.
A virtual participant in Monday night’s meeting, Cadorette said he — and more recently another tenant of the same apartment complex with different complaints — had tried repeatedly for months to contact Graham using the email address for the health officer posted on the town’s website.
“We’ve had no response,” he said.
Cadorette was told that is probably because the email address was deactivated, resulting from a change of providers, and has since been taken down.
“Did you attempt to contact anyone at the town office and ask why you hadn’t gotten a response from the town health officer,” Town Manager Jackie Higgins asked at one point.
The answer was “no,” but Cadorette insisted that wasn’t the point.
Selectman Matt Rouleau asked if Cadorette had attempted to contact his landlord? The answer to that was “yes” — repeatedly with no response.
“There’s an ongoing civil conflict between me and the landlord since September when he put his hands on me and I served him with a paper stating that until the repairs were done on my apartment I was withholding my rent,” Cadorette said.
The explanation prompted Rouleau to wonder whether the town should get involved.
“It sounds like we’re wading into the middle of a legal fight between you and your landlord,” he told Cadorette.
According to Cadorette, the town is already there and he was entitled to an “actual inspection,” not one, he claimed, riddled with lies.
“You still need to do your job,” he told Graham.
To that point, Graham hadn’t been and active participant and board member Jasmin Coulliard’s ability to moderate the meeting for him hadn’t really been tested.
That changed when Graham provided his side of the story, noting he had never been contacted by Cadorette, or anyone else, who lives at the apartment complex in question, but did inspect the apartment in response to a Feb. 11 call from the state Health Department.
Graham recalled entering Cadorette’s apartment and briefly wondering whether there was a fire somewhere inside.
“When you walked in the door it was so smoky you couldn’t see across the room, and I don’t believe it was cigarette smoke either,” Graham said, prompting one of several loud objections from Cadorette and a louder response from Couillard.
“Excuse me!” Couillard yelled, more than matching Cadorette’s decibel level. “Please allow him (Graham) to finish.”
Cadorette did until he didn’t.
Graham recounted an inspection that he said revealed “a little mold” by the toilet, but none he could see on the apartment’s smoke-stained walls and ceilings.
“I did not detect any black mold at that time,” he said.
Graham said the same was true of a kitchen counter where there had been a complaint of black mold.
“It didn’t look like mold … (and) it didn’t smell like mold,” he said. “It looked more like cooking ingredients had been spilled.”
When Graham recounted how Cadorette led him down into the basement where he noted nothing out of the ordinary with the wiring that things really started to unravel.
“That’s a lie, I have no access to the basement!” Cadorette yelled, repeatedly circling back to what he claimed was a demonstrably false statement.
Graham said he stood by his recollection and his inspection report.
“I filled out the report to the best of my ability on what I thought I saw,” he said, noting he communicated with the health department and the tenants’ advocate at the time and was more recently asked to do a second inspection.
Graham said he declined unless an “air-breathing unit” and “full haz-mat suit” were provided and the smoke-filled apartment was “aired out” in advance. He suggested the state fire marshal conduct the follow up inspection.
Rouleau said the simplest solution would be for Graham to put his name on the previously submitted inspection report and, if another inspection is required, only conduct it in the presence of the state fire marshal.
Through it all Cadorette accused Graham of lying, said he suspected he might have some sort of relationship with his landlord that would create a conflict. He also said his “primary care physician” and three contractors said there was black mold in the apartment.
“Who would these contractors be so I could speak with them?” Graham asked.
“I don’t have to tell you,” Cadorette shot back.
Rouleau, himself a contractor, said a visual inspection alone couldn’t confirm the presence of black mold.
“You can’t just look at it,” he said. “It needs to be tested.”
Cadorette continued to complain Graham was lying about inspecting the basement and hinted he might pursue legal action against the town even as Couillard sought to shut him down.
“We’re going to move on because this is getting us nowhere,” she said.
That didn’t work.
“I said stop!” she screamed. “I am speaking right now!”
Several seconds of silence followed and when Couillard spoke again she was slightly more composed.
“Rodney (Graham) is going to resubmit his report,” she said. “Hopefully, that helps you.”
Cadorette responded by saying he would be taking the matter to the police.
“Good night,” Couillard said. “Have fun.”
Those comments came even as Cadorette was virtually ejected from the meeting and board members noted Couillard had just used her “mom’s voice.”
“I don’t even scream that loud at my kids,” she said.
Graham reiterated his offer to reinspect the apartment if it was aired out in advance, but board members agreed he should only do so if accompanied by State Police or the state fire marshal.
“We stand for the public as a whole, and our work is devoted to making sure what we provide is vetted information.”
Leaving a legacy
Norwich University Director of Athletics Tony Mariano will retire next spring after more than four decades of work. B1