BARRE – Yes, yes, 1,534 times yes!
A school board that has been waiting to exhale since its initial budget request was defeated back in March was breathing easier Wednesday night after dodging what could have been yet another gut punch delivered by voters in Barre and Barre Town.
Retooled and significantly reduced, the $49.95 million school spending plan passed by a combined vote of, 1,534-1,193, on a day when most of the 2,632 ballots cast and counted – 949 in Barre and 1,683 in Barre Town arrived before the polls opened in both communities at 7 a.m.
Sure it took three tries – one in March, one in May and one on the sizzling summer day that snapped the School Board’s losing streak and averted the need for a fourth fiscal year-ending vote that, one way or the other, would have been the last.
Instead of scrambling to respond to a third straight budget defeat when they meet tonight, board members can mercifully move on, according to School Director Sarah Pregent, who welcomed the favorable results that were reported in chunks – one encouraging and the other even more so.
The good news came first as poll workers in Barre quickly completed completed their hand count of ballots cast Wednesday first – staking the budget
Staking the budget and the board to a 178-vote cushion pending the results from Barre Town where voters had narrowly defeated both earlier school spending plans, which passed by smaller margins in the city.
From Pregent’s perspective the better news was that trend ended Wednesday when city and town voters found themselves on the same page with respect to a budget that sparked social media finger-pointing and dueling signs heading into the special election.
After single-handed failing the budget twice, Barre Town voters passed it by 163 votes, 923-760. It passed in Barre, 611-433 and in the two-town district by a combined vote of 1,534-1,193.
By Barre standards it was a 341-vote landslide and Pregent who was on hand at the BOR ice arena when City Clerk Carol Dawes announced Barre’s results about 30 minutes after the polls closed, scooted up to Barre Town Middle and Elementary School hoping the cushion would hold.
It did and Pregent’s unvarnished reaction after Town Clerk Tina Lunt announced the town results revealed the relief she was feeling.
“The school budget passes,” Lunt said.
“Yes!,” Pregent exclaimed. “Oh my God!”
Pregent, who serves as chairwoman of the board’s finance committee was standing in for Board Chairwoman Sonya Spaulding who was out of state on Wednesday.
Pregent, who would have settled for another split decision provided the budget passed, said the fact that it enjoyed the support of voters in both communities was a tribute to the fiscally responsible proposal that was crafted in the wake of the last budget defeat.
“I’m very encouraged that we passed in both the city and the town separately, as well as combined,” she said. “I think it shows that we’ve done our work and the townspeople and the city folk are listening and hopefully it will be a great year.”
The alternative would have been beyond frustrating and disheartening for a board Pregent said would have had to try one more time to get a budget passed before the fiscal year ends on June 30 or risk being forced to spend 87% of the district’s last passed budget.
The last approved budget for the Barre Unified Union School district was roughly $48.5 million and 87% of that budget would be about $42.2 million. That’s roughly 7.75 million less than the $49.5 million budget that failed by 361 votes on Wednesday.
Given the close nature of the previous two votes the latest version of the budget drew predictably mixed reviews from voters who cast ballots at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School and at the BOR ice arena in Barre.
One voter drove through the BOR only to learn he needed to head up to the school in Barre Town in order to vote against a budget that, in his view, was excessive.
“It’s a pretty tough pill to swallow,” he said of the budget’s bottom line. “It’s a big number.”
While Brian Tuttle had to hold his “no” vote until he got to Barre Town the young woman driving the car in front of him was a “no” voter in Barre and when asked why, an older like-minded gentleman in the passenger seat answered for her.
“They need to live within their means,” he said.
Spaulding’s father, Charles Martin, was among those who voted “yes” in Barre on Wednesday.
“I’m a strong supporter of education,” he said expressing his personal hope the budget would pass and the School Board would get a breather.
“It’s a thankless job,” he said.
Martin and Barre resident Russell Belding supported the budget all three times, but Alisa Lussier, who works at the school in Barre, was a first-time participant.
“I voted ‘yes,’” she said while driving off.
So did Sandra Cameron.
Cameron, who lives in Barre Town and voted at the school there Wednesday afternoon, said she wasn’t swayed by cuts that dropped the budget’s bottom line from $50.4 million to $49.95 million.
“I wish they were actually increasing the budget,” she said. “We don’t spend enough on our kids.”
A retired town resident who voted moments before Cameron offered a different perspective.
“I voted no,” she said, blaming lingering uncertainty about everything from the pandemic to pensions for her questions about school spending in a district she attended as a child, and once worked as a substitute teacher.
“I support education, but I really think we need to take a step back,” she said, declining to provide her name for fear of retribution, while posing a parting question that was finally answered on Wednesday.
“Do we really need this amount?” she asked.
In the estimation of a majority of voters who participated in Wednesday’s special election the answer to that question was “yes.”