Leland & Gray's second budget vote set for April 2


TOWNSHEND -- On April 2, voters in five Windham County towns will get another crack at approving a budget for Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School.

In the meantime, administrators and board members will work to pare down the roughly $7 million spending plan, which was defeated Feb. 5 in Australian Ballot voting. 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.

"I would assume there isn't any one line item that this is going to come from. It's going to come from multiple areas," board Chairwoman Emily Long said. "I would hope it doesn't impact our students' education."

Leland & Gray's fiscal year 2015 budget proposal failed on a 132-122 vote. A majority of voters in Jamaica, Newfane and Windham approved the budget, but Brookline and Townshend voters rejected it.

With not many people having shown up at public hearings before the vote, and with Australian-style balloting not allowing for discussion as the vote happened, board members said they had no firm idea why the budget was rejected.

They were hoping for some answers at Tuesday night's board meeting in Townshend. But only 10 people attended, and just six spoke about the budget. Two of those in attendance said they actually had backed the board's proposed spending plan.

"I definitely was in support of the budget," said Sandy Stark of Newfane. "I truly believe the reason it did not pass is, not enough people vote."

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.

"A lot of people were home and probably didn't want to venture out," Stark said.

There was talk at Tuesday night's meeting of a possible petition that would allow the Leland & Gray board to submit the same budget to voters for reconsideration. Such a petition must be submitted within 30 days of the first vote and requires the signatures of at least 5 percent of the total number of voters in the five member towns.

If a reconsideration petition is filed, it seems unlikely that many of those signatures would come from Townshend residents. Voters there rejected the school budget by a 54-to-20 margin, and there is a history of tension between Leland & Gray and its host town.

Townshend resident Ryan Hockertlotz said he believes the Feb. 5 vote represented "backlash" against the board due to the way in which budget material had been presented.

"I think people disapproved of what they perceive as unacceptable behavior or communication standards," he said. 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.

"It was obscured," Hockertlotz said. "You had to hunt and peck in that budget."

Furthermore, he said several residents' requests for salary information had not been fulfilled in a timely manner. That is "continuing what people are perceiving as a pattern of doing whatever you please as a board, or as a school or as a supervisory union," Hockertlotz said.

Windham Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Steven John apologized for any delays, saying his office had released the information on Tuesday.

Long acknowledged that "there have been some challenges in communication at times between the town of Townshend and Leland & Gray, mostly around bond votes."

She also noted the school's impacts on the town, especially during busy dismissal times.

"We know we're right smack in the middle of the town of Townshend," Long said. "And what we want to do is be the best neighbors we can."

Conflicts with Townshend aside, 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.

An e-mail sent to the school board from a Townshend resident listed the line item as a concern, saying the project's costs were "way too high."

Food-services spending "was something that was a little different for us this year," Long said. "And there were a lot of good reasons for it."

In her written budget rationale, which was posted on the school's website, Leland & Gray Principal Dorinne Dorfman had detailed those reasons. They include a greatly increased demand for free meals, breakfasts and snacks, and Dorfman says the school's current facilities are cramped and outdated.

On Tuesday, Leland & Gray board member Mike Dolan argued that cutting costs by investing in second-hand kitchen equipment is not practical.

"If you're buying used or refurbished equipment, you're going to be buying it again every three years," Dolan said, noting that maintenance costs also would be high.

-- There was a significant increase in Leland & Gray's supervisory-union assessment, and that was cited by some as a reason for a negative budget vote.

The increase was 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 also 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.

Leland & Gray board member Bahman Mahdavi said he made some calls after the budget vote and found that "the overarching issue is people's ability to pay their taxes."

-- Also on Tuesday, 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.

All of which adds up to a long list for Windham Central and Leland & Gray administrators to consider as they whittle down the fiscal 2015 budget.

John recommended -- and the board accepted -- setting the second budget vote for April 2.

"That's strategically picked because we have to allow time for a warning," he said.

The schedule does not allow much time for officials to come up with their new budget proposal. 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 on April 2.

Long said board members are eager to hear feedback on how budget information can be better communicated to voters this time around.

"We're trying desperately to be as transparent as we possibly can," she said.

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


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