EAST MONTPELIER — Following a flurry of school board meetings this week, the stage for a Town Meeting Day sequel is now set in the Washington Central Supervisory Union.
April 9 will be “School District Meeting Day” in four of the supervisory union’s six districts, where currently autonomous boards have all warned budget votes against the backdrop of a state-imposed merger.
The abruptly adjourned organizational meeting for the Washington Central Unified Union School District will reconvene on April 8. That meeting could potentially pave the way for a late-June vote on a merged budget for the pre-K-12 district that includes elementary schools in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester, as well as jointly owned U-32 Middle and High School.
Amid considerable merger-related uncertainty, school directors in Berlin and Calais both warned Town Meeting Day votes on separate budgets that were both approved.
Their counterparts in East Montpelier, Middlesex, Worcester and U-32 chose to wait. However, with an April 15 deadline looming for issuing contracts to teachers, all decided this week to hedge their bets and warn school-specific budgets while waiting for the merger process to play out.
Three of the boards consulted with Burlington attorney Christopher Leopold first, and while Worcester school directors chose not to participate in that meeting, Chairman Will Baker did attend.
Leopold advised the boards it would probably be prudent to separately warn budget votes, understanding the authority to expend any money that is authorized by voters would evaporate if the state-ordered merger isn’t delayed or derailed before July 1.
Hours earlier, Judge Robert Mello denied a preliminary injunction requested by lawyers representing 33 school districts — including four of the six in Washington Central — that are under state order to merge. Mello concluded lawyers requesting the injunction had not demonstrated a likelihood they would prevail on the merits.
Though that won’t be the last word in the court case, it wasn’t good news for those challenging Act 46.
A legislative extension that would create a one-year extension for several school districts — including those in Washington Central — has cleared the House and is widely expected to be considered by the Senate Education Committee next week.
That was the state of play heading into a series of meetings that all produced similar results. The Worcester and U-32 school boards met Wednesday and the East Montpelier, and Middlesex boards met Thursday.
All four boards adopted budgets — some with modest revisions — that they had last looked at in January, and all agreed to present those spending plans to voters on April 9. Three of those budgets will be decided by Australian ballot, and the $15.1 million budget for U-32 will be collectively decided by voters in all five Washington Central towns. That includes Berlin and Calais, where budgets for elementary schools were approved on Town Meeting Day.
The budget proposed for U-32 calls for spending $18,809 per equalized pupil, up 4.17 percent from the current fiscal year. It also reflects a spending increase of $325,000, or about 2.2 percent.
U-32 school directors are comfortable with the budget request, but wary of its prospects of passing amid uncertainty about the merger. The board welcomed news the low-bidder for reconstructing the school’s track had offered to hold its price for 30 days while expressing hope DuBois Construction could be talked into tacking on an extra few days. That, members said, would allow them to avoid deciding whether to pull the trigger on the $793,000 construction contract by April 4 — before the results of the April 9 budget vote are available.
Money for the track project isn’t included in the budget, but the surplus funds that would pay for it could come in handy if the high school spending plan is rejected and the board has to refine the proposal.
The tax implications of the U-32 budget are built into projected tax rates for its five sending school districts.
The high school budget helped blunt the 3-cent increase projected in Berlin and had the opposite effect with respect to the 4.6-cent rate hike in Calais. Elementary school budgets in both of those communities have now been approved and unless there is a petitioned re-vote or they are superseded by a merged budget, they will finance operations of separate pre-K-6 school systems during the fiscal year that starts July 1.
That leaves East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester where local school budgets will be presented to voters on April 9.
It might be the last time that happens — a fact that wasn’t lost on members of any of the three boards during a series of hastily arranged special meetings.
Even if the Senate eventually passes the bill approved by House lawmakers, the districts entitled to the extension would still be required to approve any desired amendments to default articles of agreement by July 1, and complete the transition to a single district run by one board with one budget by July 1, 2020.
East Montpelier and Middlesex residents will vote on school budgets by Australian ballot on April 9. In Worcester, voters set school spending on the floor of an open town meeting like the one school directors have warned for 6 p.m. on April 9 at Doty Memorial School.
Citing the looming merger, the Worcester board zeroed out its annual contribution to a capital fund and hasn’t ruled out tapping an existing surplus to provide a one-time tax reduction before that money is pooled as part of the merger.
Board members expressed mixed opinions about that idea, but agreed it isn’t a question they needed to answer to adopt a budget for their town’s pre-K-6 school.
The budget Worcester voters will be asked to approve calls for spending $1.35 million. That’s roughly $10,000 less than voters approved a year ago and would allow for a projected 2.4-cent rate reduction when coupled with Worcester’s share of running U-32.
Based on the board-adopted budget, spending per equalized pupil in Worcester would be $17,037 — 1.26 percent lower than the current year.
Though it is higher than the state average, that figure compares favorably to all of Worcester’s partners in Washington Central. The $2 million voter-approved budget in Calais calls for spending $17,475 per equalized pupil during the coming year, a 9.82 percent increase, and Berlin’s newly approved $3.6 million budget will require spending $17,637 per equalized pupil, an increase of 4.4 percent.
Heading into Thursday night’s special meeting in Middlesex, school directors were confronting a budget that called for spending $20,128 per equalized pupil, an increase of 4.36 percent. They were also eyeing a projected 7.3-cent rate hike, partly due to a “penalty” associated with the fact that the budget they’d last looked at in January was roughly $16,000 over the state spending threshold.
The Middlesex board dealt with that issue by making an unspecified $20,000 cut before adopting a $3.25 million budget that calls for spending $19,997 per equalized pupil, an increase of 3.68 percent. If approved by voters, the budget would trigger a projected rate increase of 6.8 cents — none of it due to the state penalty.
Though board members didn’t decide what might be cut, the possibility of further reducing a capital fund transfer they had previously cut was floated as an option.
Meanwhile, East Montpelier school directors chose not to do any last-minute tinkering before adopting a proposed $4 million budget. That budget calls for spending roughly $65,000 more on the operation of East Montpelier Elementary School than voters approved a year ago, an increase of 1.6 percent. Spending per equalized pupil would climb .52 percent to $19,747, while the tax rate would drop .7 cents, according to administrative projections.