Voters in the five towns served by Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School have an important decision coming up.
Leland & Gray's original fiscal year 2015 budget proposal was defeated Feb. 5 in Australian Ballot voting, by a margin of 132 to 122. A majority of voters in Jamaica, Newfane and Windham approved the budget, but Brookline and Townshend voters rejected it.
One Townshend resident said at Tuesday's public hearing that he believes the vote represented "backlash" against the school board due to the way in which budget material had been presented. For instance, he said a proposed investment of $32,500 for the first phase of a three-year food-services upgrade was not clearly outlined in the school's annual report. Furthermore, he said several residents' requests for salary information had not been fulfilled in a timely manner.
There were several other possible reasons for budget rejection discussed Tuesday, including the proposed kitchen upgrade, which included $8,000 for a pizza oven with a six-minute bake time and $6,000 for another oven, may have been considered too pricey.
Food-services spending "was something that was a little different for us this year," Chairwoman Emily Long said. "And there were a lot of good reasons for it."
Leland & Gray Principal Dorinne Dorfman said those reasons include a greatly increased demand for free meals, breakfasts and snacks, and Dorfman says the school's current facilities are cramped and outdated.
There was also a significant increase in Leland & Gray's supervisory-union assessment, in part due to enrollment numbers, with Dorfman saying previously that Leland & Gray's "proportional share of the assessed SU costs have risen relative to elementary districts' share."
Long noted a regulatory change that requires shifting some costs out of individual school budgets and into the supervisory union's budget. "It makes the line item look really inflated," she said.
The budget's tax burden also spurred concern. The plan, based on preliminary estimates and considering only Leland & Gray's impacts, called for tax hikes in four of the five affected towns.
In addition, the Leland & Gray board heard questions and complaints about topics including class sizes, scheduling gaps, extracurricular activities, and spending on such items as a kiln for the art department and a new driver-education car.
Long said board members are eager to hear more feedback on what changes residents would like to see in the budget and how budget information can be better communicated to voters before the next vote, scheduled for April 2. The Leland & Gray board is scheduled to meet Feb. 26 to vote on a revised budget, and officials also said they will hold a public-information meeting prior to the Australian Ballot vote.
In the meantime, administrators and board members will work to pare down the roughly $7 million spending plan. Where those cuts will happen remains unclear. But the defeated budget had raised expenses by 2.8 percent over the current year, and school administrators now have orders to reduce that to a 2 percent increase before the board considers further action.
They need the public's input on how to proceed from here, and they need more people to take the time to vote on April 2.
Officials have acknowledged that voter participation is on the decline. Last year's turnout of 214 was the lowest ever for a Leland & Gray Australian Ballot, and the voter count this year may have been impacted by foul weather.
Let's hope for clear skies on April 2.