BERLIN — A second wave of school budgets, including one for U-32 Middle and High School, were approved by voters in the five-town, six-school Washington Central Supervisory Union on Tuesday.
A much bigger budget may yet be the subject of a June 25 special election as Washington Central lurches toward a state-ordered merger, but all the pieces for that consolidated spending plan are now theoretically in place.
Two of them — budgets for elementary schools in Berlin and Calais — were separately approved by voters in those communities on Town Meeting Day in March, while the other four were approved in different ways on Tuesday.
Budgets for elementary schools in East Montpelier and Middlesex were both approved during day-long voting, as was the spending plan for U-32. Meanwhile, the budget for Doty Memorial School in Worcester was approved on the floor of an open town meeting, as is that community’s custom.
On a day when turnout was as disappointing as some feared, the results were all favorable.
The $15.2 million budget for U-32 was collectively approved by voters in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester on Tuesday, 325-176.
Ballots cast separately in each community were brought to the Berlin municipal office building after the polls closed. There they were co-mingled and fed into the vote tabulating machine that delivered the verdict.
The newly approved budget for the grade 7-12 school reflects a spending increase of about $325,000, or 2.2 percent, and calls for spending $18,809 per equalized pupil — up 4.17 percent from the current fiscal year.
In order to limit those increases, the board approved an administrative recommendation to eliminate seven positions — five para-educators, a food service employee, and a full-time position that provides support for high school math students.
In a cost saving move, town clerks in East Montpelier and Middlesex skipped the expense of investing in ballots that could be tabulated by machine, and opted for the hand-counted variety instead.
The results were similar.
Voters in East Montpelier agreed to spend $4 million on the operation of East Montpelier Elementary School. The budget passed, 120-28, on a day when 148 of the town’s 2,243 voters cast ballots.
In Middlesex, voters approved the $3.25 million budget proposed for Rumney Memorial School, 80-49.
Though the budgets for East Montpelier, Middlesex and U-32 involved a simple “yes” or “no,” the one in Worcester required some explaining. Not because there was anything super complicated or controversial about the $1.35 million proposal.
There wasn’t. It calls for spending about $10,000 less than voters approved a year ago and administrative projections indicate the school tax rate — including Worcester’s share of U-32 — would drop 2.4 cents.
However, uncertainty about the merger and how to handle a fund balance heading into one required some conversation.
School Director Chani Waterhouse kicked it off by acknowledging the obvious.
“We are at a particularly confusing and confounding point,” she said, suggesting this is a “time of change” in a supervisory union where there is conflict over the merger and lingering questions about when it will go into effect.
Those questions, she said, led the boards that opted not to warn budget votes in March to seek voter approval on Tuesday.
“This is us hedging our bets,” she said, explaining how the budget could become a building block in a consolidated spending plan if the merged district is launched on July 1.
School Director Matthew DeGroot echoed Waterhouse’s explanation of the need to secure voter approval of an elementary school budget despite the possibility the authorization will evaporate before it is ever exercised.
“If this budget means anything, it’s because a merger did not happen, or is delayed,” he said. “All of this is just contingency planning.”
Voters seemed less concerned about the looming merger than they were about the board expending a $110,000 fund balance before it is absorbed by the new district.
Waterhouse said the board has discussed that idea and is expected to revisit it in June.
Nearly 20 voters attended the school district meeting and unanimously approved the board’s budget request by on a voice vote.