Friday February 15, 2013

TOWNSHEND -- Make no mistake: Leaders of Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School are happy that their fiscal 2014 budget was overwhelmingly approved.

But they’re increasingly troubled that, each year, fewer residents from Leland & Gray’s five member towns are showing up to vote on the school’s spending plans.

This year’s voter turnout of just 214 was 55 percent lower than the turnout for the school’s first Australian-ballot-style vote eight years ago.

"It’s something that we continue to be concerned about," said Emily Long, Leland & Gray board chairwoman. "It’s just so hard for us to know the reason behind it."

Those who did show up for last week’s vote in Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham approved the school’s budget by a 147-67 margin. The proposal won a majority in all five towns, though Townshend posted the smallest margin of victory with a 27-26 vote.

That might have been partly because Townshend is expected to see the biggest hike in the high school’s portion of property taxes -- 10 cents -- of all the Leland & Gray towns.

Overall, the school’s $6.8 million budget is 3.9-percent larger than last fiscal year’s budget.

"That was higher than what our board would normally put forward," Long said.

Administrators have said a 13-percent increase in health-care costs and an average 2.


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8-percent increase in teacher salaries are two primary factors behind the increase in spending.

But officials also have said they must make educational investments to keep up with changing standards and to better prepare students for college or the job market.

"Since our region as well as the nation faces a changing economy, increases in textbooks, supplies and other instructional materials have been carefully chosen, while upgrading well-worn technology and expanding high-quality technology education are also much-needed," Principal Dorinne Dorfman wrote in her detailed budget rationale.

Some investments in the fiscal 2014 budget included an additional, part-time computer-science teacher and increased spending for math, foreign-language and social-studies courses.

"We have a lot of new, strong academic initiatives that have started at Leland & Gray under Dorinne’s leadership," Long said.

Professional development for teachers also is a greater priority in the school’s recent budgets.

"Those professional-development opportunities are going to improve student performance and outcomes," Long said.

However, Long said board members are not sure how to improve voter turnout when budget time rolls around.

Officials try to get residents involved: The board sends out a budget-summary mailing, and administrators post both their annual report and budget rationale on the Leland & Gray website.

There also were several public informational meetings before the budget vote. But relatively few residents attended.

And turnout numbers continue to decline. The vote for the fiscal year 2006 budget -- the first conducted via Australian ballot -- attracted 477 residents.

That dipped to 353 within five years, and the vote total has been below 300 since then.

Officials noticed a marked decrease this year particularly in Newfane, which fell from 106 votes cast for the fiscal 2013 budget to 64 votes for last week’s ballot.

"That’s the trend we’re seeing -- less engagement," Long said.

Before Australian ballots were implemented, the school’s budget was voted on from the floor at the Leland & Gray annual meeting. Long said turnout varied widely for those sessions.

"There were times when we had 500 people in that gym," she said, adding that other budget votes attracted fewer than 100 residents.

So it’s not clear that a shift in the voting format would increase turnout. At any rate, Long said she believes that a request for such a change should come from the voters, not the board.

"We’ll continue to talk about this," Long said. "We’ll continue to try to engage people."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.