BARRE — With one board now standing solidly behind one $45.1 million budget, voters in Barre and Barre Town will collectively decide on Tuesday whether to approve the first-ever spending plan for a merged pre-K-12 school district that is otherwise ready to launch on July 1.
Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Barre Municipal Auditorium for city voters and the gymnasium at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School for town voters. The combined results will determine the fate of a budget that would finance the operation of currently autonomous elementary schools in both communities, jointly owned Spaulding High School, and administrative services.
The elimination of the supervisory union structure and the shift to a single school board are part of a merger that was ordered under Act 46.
There are several other forced mergers in the works, but none are as far along as the one in Barre. The transition follows a three-year process that featured two failed attempts at voluntary merger that would have leveraged an estimated $5 million in tax incentives. Those incentives would have shaved 20 cents off the education tax rate for the merged district over four years, starting with an 8-cent reduction in its first fiscal year.
Those incentives were lost when Barre Town voters didn’t approve the merger by a wide enough margin in January to overturn their earlier rejection of the proposal last November.
Since that January re-vote, voters in Barre and Barre Town have modified articles of agreement for the merged district, elected a new, nine-member school board to run it and are now being asked to weigh in its first budget.
Early voting is underway and an informational meeting is set for 6 p.m. Monday in the Spaulding library. However, Tuesday is when the newly elected board will trot out a school budget that is far larger than any voters in either community have considered.
That’s because those voters have separately approved budgets for their respective elementary schools, jointly approved the spending plan for the high school, and never been asked to approve a supervisory union budget — which was $15.2 million this year.
The proposed budget’s $45.1 million bottom line rolls all of those costs and revenues into one and enjoys the unanimous support of the recently elected board, according to Chairman Paul Malone.
“Every board member is completely behind this budget because it’s the right thing to do,” said Malone, who lives in Barre Town and is currently pulling double duty as chairman of the Spaulding board.
Board members — four from the city, four from the town and one jointly elected — had to act fast following their April 9 election in order to warn a budget vote that coincided with Barre Town’s annual municipal elections on Tuesday.
Thanks to work done by a transitional board on which he also served, Malone said the school spending plan reflects a level of fiscal prudence he hopes will be rewarded by voters on Tuesday.
The transitional board recommended more than $640,000 in budget adjustments — including more than $440,000 in cuts — during its deliberations.
Those cuts included $300,000 in proposed new positions and $140,800 from a larger increase in the line item for building maintenance.
Board members agreed that, while valuable, some of the requested new positions weren’t critical this year and agreed a sizable increase in building maintenance could be dialed back, while still moving closer to what they were told was the industry standard of $1 per square foot of school building. The proposed budget reflects 80 cents per square foot — less than Spaulding has been spending, but significantly more than either of the elementary school boards have budgeted in the past.
Malone said those cuts, coupled with a decision to use $200,000 in available surplus funds to reduce the projected tax impact of the proposed budget, were responsible.
The proposed budget does include six new positions. Three — a behavior specialist, a literacy interventionist and a school resource officer — would be based at the pre-K-8 school in Barre Town. Two others — a work-based learning coordinator and a science teacher — are needed at Spaulding. The sixth position is an assistant special education director, who would oversee existing in-district alternative programs and students whose special needs currently require expensive out-of-district placements.
Board members agreed they could not comfortably cut any of those positions, and Malone described the proposed budget as “extremely tight.”
“We’ve trimmed everything we can,” Malone said. “Anything more means cutting programs and we’re not prepared to do that at this time.”
Malone said the budget includes money to cover a yet-to-be-negotiated teachers contract and absorbs an 11.8% increase in health insurance.
Year to year comparisons are problematic because the new district didn’t exist last year. However, the combined education spending for the three districts that did was $31.95 million. That figure represents the combined cost of running the districts after deducting revenue that flowed to the supervisory union. The comparable figure required by the budget proposed by the board is roughly $32.7 million — an increase of about $700,000.
That translates into $13,562 in spending per equalized pupil — a theoretical increase of 4.36% if you calculate the spending per equalized pupil of the three existing districts as if they were merged this year.
Sonya Spaulding, who serves as chairwoman of the city’s school board and was elected to lead the new district’s finance committee earlier his week, notes the merged district — like the three it will replace — sports among the lowest spending per equalized pupils in the state.
Among the examples cited by Spaulding include Twinfield ($18,261), Harwood ($17,958), and Montpelier-Roxbury ($16,350). The average projected spending per equalized pupils in the 11 districts surrounding Barre is just under $17,000, she said.
Superintendent John Pandolfo is projecting the education tax rate will increase by 5 cents in both communities if the budget is approved, though he said that is a “conservative estimate” based on legislative conversations that should provide some relief with respect to a key figure used to calculate tax rates.
Pandolfo’s projections don’t assume an increase in the homestead property yield that could trim as much as 2 cents off the 5-cent rate hike that is being forecast.
If the past two special elections are any indication, turnout will likely be low in the city, though Spaulding and others are doing their best to get out the vote on a day when Barre voters aren’t used to voting.
Barre Town doesn’t have that problem, because while voters there typically consider school spending proposals in March — just like their counterparts in the city — their municipal elections have historically been held on the second Tuesday in May.
With both major municipal budgets and a couple of contested races for seats on the Select Board set to be decided in Barre Town on Tuesday, the budget for the merged school district will be an added attraction.
Voters in both communities will also be asked to approve a companion request to spend $3 million on the operation of the Central Vermont Career Center during the fiscal year that starts July 1.