WESTMINSTER -- A 24-cent hike in the tax rate passed smoothly with town voters Saturday after members of the local school board explained in detail the reasons for the unusually high increase.
The voters who convened in the Bellows Falls Union High School auditorium adopted a $5,055,404 budget for the maintenance of Westminster's schools from July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015. That figure, however, will not include the $14,500 taxpayers voted to remove from a Solar Feasibility Study and return to the general fund.
Just as he previously had with the Reformer, School Board Chairman Dan Axtell explained to the public why there was such a "breathtaking increase in the tax rate." He said every school district in Vermont is seeing a 5 percent increase in the state base tax rate. Axtell said this is due to a lack of revenue generated by the state's gasoline tax, as environmentally-friendly Vermonters are purchasing less gas for their fuel-efficient vehicles. There is also a $172,000 deficit that must be made up and it represents a 5-cent increase on the rate. And Axtell said there has been a large increase in seventh and eighth grade expenses (thought not in overall expenditures) in addition to a decline in enrollment numbers.
Axtell said the school board hopes to get the budget more under control next year.
Resident Stephen Major, a former school board member, said he appreciates the board's hard work and asked if there were any suggested amendments to Article 10, which pertained to the budget. School Board member Molly Banik addressed Major, saying she thinks she is the most conservative member of the board and is known for painstakingly going over each itemized line. She said the tax increase is necessary and is not something the board takes lightly. Fellow member Rick Gordon added that the hands of the school board are often tied, as there are a vast number of things out of its members' control.
"A lot of the spending is for things that are mandated," he said, adding that many are state or federal obligations.
A few citizens raised concerns over what they perceived as troubling proficiency rankings among the town's students. Gordon said such a year-to-year comparison is a failure of the education system because each class contains a completely different group of children. He said the small class sizes have a big impact on statistics and the rankings referred to are "a very crude measure of school quality."
Resident David Major said too much testing is one reason for any apparent fall in quality.
"We're testing and not teaching. And we're spending too much time talking about irrelevant data," he said to a round of applause from the crowd.
Before the school district portion of the day wrapped up, Moderator Fletcher Proctor read the names of the four men running for a seat as school director. Gordon is running against Peter Terrell for a three-year term while Ian Sbardellati and John Sciacca are competing for a two-year seat. Gordon, Terrell and Sbardellati spoke to the audience about their candidacy, but Sciacca was not present. The elections of all town, school district and fire district officials will be held by Australian ballot at the Westminster Institute on Tuesday. Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
In regards to special education spending, Stephen Major said the school district must be careful not to unnecessarily increase the number of special education students through categorization. Windham Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Chris Kibbe said students on Individualized Education Program (IEPs) are re-evaluated every three years and are exited from the program if they no longer meet the requirements.
Charlotte Gifford took the microphone and stood up to remind the school board that early investment in students makes it easier to later on exit students from IEPs. She said the federal government years ago pledged to fully fund special education and that promise was broken.
When it came time to vote on the Selectboard's warrant articles, Chairman Nathan Stoddard introduced new Town Manager Russ Hodgkins to the audience. Voters then adopted Article 13 and agreed to raise and appropriate $130,000 for the Town Highway Equipment Reserve Fund. They also approved Article 14, which will raise and appropriate $15,000 for the Bridge Rehabilitation Reserve Fund.
Article 15 -- which was written to generate money to pay the indebtedness of the town, repair highways and pay the town's general expenses -- was amended to raise and appropriate $1,900,188. Selectboard member Craig Allen went into detail about the dollar figure. He explained $319,000 will go toward paying off an expense regarding the damage of the Gageville bridge during Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011. Allen said the town is unlikely to get the money from FEMA and the expense needs to be paid off.
Allen also said there is $60,000 in the budget that will pay to fix a culvert.
Taxpayers also adopted an amended Article 4, which means $239,350 will be raised to pay the indebtedness of the fire district between July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015.
In other news:
-- Vermont State Reps. David Deen and Mike Mrowicki addressed the crowd and thanked them for the privilege of representing them in Montpelier.
-- Peter Harrison was given the Westminster Citizen of the Year Award and Ronnie Friedman accepted it on his behalf.
-- Proctor thanked everyone for showing up and said he had "the best seat in the house."
-- There was a moment of silence before the meeting in memory of David W. Wright, to whom the 2013 Annual Report was dedicated. Wright served the community in multiple roles, including as a member of the fire district prudential committee.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.