At the outset of Wednesday evening’s meeting of the Oxbow Unified Union School District board, Bradford, Vt., resident Bud Haas made a few recommendations to board members that seemed to sum up the challenges the district has faced in getting a budget passed for the current school year.
Maybe, he suggested, the board should find a way to hold a Town Meeting-style floor vote. Perhaps the budget would pass if the board wrote up articles of agreement that would make rearranging grades or closing schools in the Bradford-Newbury district more difficult. The district needs to change its name, as voters don’t understand that the district budget, rather than just the Oxbow High School budget, is what they’re voting on. The board should make a statement that moving the Orange East Supervisory Union offices to the Copeland building in Bradford was a mistake, Haas said.
If these suggestions have anything in common, it’s that they are only tenuously related to the district’s proposed budget, which voters have now twice rejected. In conclusion, Haas noted ominously that the Vermont Board of Education had approved earlier that day the dissolution of the district formed by the southern Vermont towns of Readsboro and Halifax.
The only other district in Vermont that doesn’t have a budget, First Branch Unified School District, comprising Chelsea and Tunbridge, is also in Orange County and is facing some of the same issues. Costs and tax rates are up, district officials are working on plans to improve education and find efficiencies, and every step of the way the district must overcome skepticism about its existence, which was brought about under Act 46, Vermont’s 2015 school consolidation law.
But without budgets, both school districts are now facing a cash crunch and will struggle to provide needed programs and services, officials said. Both districts are in uncharted waters. Very seldom does a school district start a new fiscal year, which for both began July 1, without a budget, much less welcome students back after Labor Day without knowing whether it will have funding from the public.
“We’re beyond a rock and a hard place at this point,” said Danielle Corti, chair of the Oxbow district’s board, which oversees the elementary schools in Bradford and Newbury, Oxbow High School and River Bend Technical Center. Board members have begun to get out and talk to the public more, including an event in Newbury last Monday, which Corti said “is definitely where we need to be.”
At meetings Wednesday night, both districts approved new budget proposals which they hope will find favor with voters.
Oxbow’s proposed budget of just under $16.9 million cuts another $190,000 from the spending plan voters rejected Sept. 1 in a 273-184 vote. That’s an increase of less than $600,000 over last year’s budget. Much of the cut from the previous plan comes from continued federal funding for universal meals and a final accounting of food service debt for the prior year that showed a substantial reduction last spring.
If voters approve the budget, the homestead education tax rate in Bradford would increase by just under 9 cents, to $1.66 per $100 of assessed value. The Newbury homestead education tax rate would rise by a little over 4½ cents, to $1.61 per $100.
The Oxbow board has not yet set a voting date, but it will likely be in the week of Oct. 19 to 27.
First Branch board members voted to forward a budget of just under $6.9 million to voters next month. The new proposal is about $104,000 lower than the budget defeated in March. Residents voted at the end of June, 266-143, against a proposed $6.98 million spending plan.
The latest attempt is about $188,000 higher than last year’s spending, an increase of about 2.9%. The most recent cuts were attributable to staffing decisions made over the summer, said Jamie Kinnarney, superintendent of the White River Valley Supervisory Union.
Approving the budget would yield homestead tax rates of $1.64 per $100 in Chelsea and $1.58 in Tunbridge. That’s about 5.5 cents and 10 cents higher than last year, respectively.
Most Vermont residents pay their education property taxes as a percentage of income on their primary residences. In both the First Branch and Oxbow districts, that comes to around 2.7%.
Oxbow board members said the public was telling them that the proposed budget and tax rates were too high. But board members also said they felt residents need to hear from the board about not only the budget, which is typically a school district’s fundamental policy document, but also about the structure of the districts themselves. The pandemic has hampered officials’ ability to meet with voters and address their concerns.
Both districts ordinarily vote on their budgets at floor meetings, where attendees can ask questions and make amendments to the budget. And in both districts, officials have studied ways to hold an in-person meeting, even during the pandemic. First Branch officials took a look at the empty Tunbridge Fairgrounds, but ended up warning an Australian ballot vote.
“Not being able to have a discussion that night where we’re able to amend and change the budget, I think that’s … I don’t feel confident with an Australian ballot,” First Branch board Chair Kathy Galluzzo said in Wednesday’s meeting.
“I think as a board your hands are tied,” Kinnarney replied, “and I think you’ve got to trust that we’re going to inform voters and that Tunbridge and Chelsea residents want what’s best for their kids. And I think what’s best for their kids is ensuring we have a budget that makes certain we can provide them with a high-quality education.”
Both districts also have decisions to make about how their schools are structured.
First Branch has been considering since last winter a plan to group K-4 students at Tunbridge Central School and fifth- through eighth-grade students at Chelsea Public School. A restructuring committee convened by Kinnarney in July has recommended the district go ahead with those plans, which wouldn’t go into full effect until fall 2022, in the interest of improving educational options and managing costs, and board member Nick Zigelbaum said he felt the district should put that plan in front of residents before another budget vote.
“That’s the thing we need to have in place in order to get people to support this budget,” he said, suggesting the board put off a budget vote until November.
The restructuring committee intends to present its plans in virtual meetings in the coming weeks, but Kinnarney said the budget vote needed to happen sooner, because in the event of a third defeat, he would have to prepare a menu of cuts to put before the board.
Oxbow officials also have had to put off measures that would provide their consolidated district with some structure. A set of proposed articles of agreement were to be voted on in April, Corti said. Those articles would address some of the suggestions Haas made in Wednesday’s meeting, she noted, including setting up voting thresholds for rearranging grades or closing schools.
“All of that work has actually been done,” Corti said in an interview, but it had to take a back seat, first to the onset of the pandemic, then to the ongoing work of winning approval for the budget.
There are still residents who would rather dissolve the district, but that process doesn’t have anything to do with the budget, officials said. The towns would have to vote individually, as Readsboro and Halifax did. In the meantime, students are attending schools and receiving instruction, but without public support.
Kinnarney’s promise of budget cuts is an acknowledgement of the funding reality these districts will face if they can’t get a budget passed. The schools will limp along, and there will be financial consequences.
Under state law, if a school district doesn’t have a budget, it can set a tax rate of $1 per $100, and the state provides only about 25% of funding. A district can then borrow up to 87% of its previous year’s spending, which would allow it to keep the doors open, but would necessitate cuts in programs. And the borrowing would result in interest costs that voters would be on the hook for.
In the next month, officials in both districts will be reaching out to voters who are, Corti said, “inundated with information.” It isn’t clear how or whether they will break through.
“There is no right answer,” Corti said. “It’s just, I feel like, an impossible situation, and in the middle of this impossible situation are our students and staff” who are trying to just to keep school open in the middle of a pandemic.
Alex Hanson can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3207.