L&G prepares for budget revote


TOWNSHEND -- The Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School district consists of five member towns. But at the start of a budget forum Tuesday night -- little more than a week before a revote on the district's fiscal year 2015 spending plan -- there were just four adults in the audience.

That may not bode well for Leland & Gray board members who are hoping more voters turn out for the April 2 Australian balloting in Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham. Nonetheless, the board led a school-spending discussion for more than an hour, reiterating some details of a roughly $7 million budget.

"We feel pretty strongly that this budget supports what we need to educate the kids at the best possible cost," board Chairwoman Emily Long said.

Leland & Gray's fiscal 2015 budget was rejected by a 132-122 tally on Feb. 5 -- the first time in more than a decade that the school's budget failed to win voter approval on the first try. A majority of voters in Jamaica, Newfane and Windham approved the spending plan, while a majority in Brookline and Townshend rejected it.

In the school's home base of Townshend, the margin was 54 against and 20 in favor of the budget.

Ongoing tensions between Leland & Gray and its host town were mentioned as one possible reason for the budget failure. Others cited taxes and proposed spending including $32,500 earmarked for the first phase of a three-year food-services upgrade.

The proposed budget raises spending by 2.8 percent over the current year. After the plan was rejected, board members initially asked school and Windham Central Supervisory Union administrators to come up with cuts that would reduce that to a 2 percent increase.

But the board subsequently received a petition signed by nearly 200 voters calling for reconsideration, meaning a second vote on the same budget. By law, administrators said, that halted any talk of spending cuts.

"We are obligated as a board to present the same budget," Long said. "Nothing's really changed because we are not able, by law, to change anything."

So the board warned an April 2 budget vote that must be held in the same places and during the same hours as the first vote. Australian balloting will begin at 9 a.m. in Brookline, Newfane and Townshend and at 10 a.m. in Jamaica and Windham; all polls close at 7 p.m.

Voting locations are the town offices in Brookline, Jamaica and Windham; town hall in Townshend; and NewBrook Fire House in Newfane.

Voters also can cast absentee ballots or vote early at their respective town clerk's offices.

The Tuesday-night forum was part of the revote process. But turnout was light, and there were just a handful of questions including inquiries about salaries, the voting process and what happens if the budget fails a second time.

If the budget is rejected on April 2, Long said, "we will ask the administration ... to come back with a reduced (spending) plan."

But board members hope that won't be necessary, and they're making another pitch for their initial budget. The only change for the revote is a somewhat revised budget rationale authored by Principal Dorinne Dorfman; the document is available on the school's website, www.lelandandgray.org.

The document "was updated to clarify things in the budget that we felt may not have been explained well enough," Long said.

Dorfman details what administrators say is a pressing need for modernized, expanded food-services facilities. In a school that originally was built with no cafeteria, the percentage of students eligible for free meals has grown to nearly half.

The average number of daily breakfasts served is 94, Dorfman writes, and the average daily lunch count is 215 -- not to mention the demand for after-school snacks and summer meals.

"L&G's food-service staff members struggle with food preparation and distribution in our current facilities," Dorfman wrote.

The budget rationale also includes two explanations for a jump in Leland & Gray's Windham Central Supervisory Union assessment. First, state law has required the centralization of several services at the supervisory-union level; this year, Windham Central is centralizing technology services, resulting in higher costs.

Also, Leland & Gray's proportional share of the supervisory union's costs has grown due to the school's higher enrollment.

Tuesday's discussion didn't touch on many other details of the school's proposed budget, veering instead into debate about Vermont's system for funding and governing education as well as the challenges presented by declining student enrollment statewide.

Board members also noted a general decline in turnout for Leland & Gray budget votes. The 254 votes cast on Feb. 5 represent about 7 percent of the district's registered voters, but that was an improvement over last year's tally of 214.

"Our numbers are going down," Long said, though she noted that the Feb. 5 vote may have been hampered by heavy snow.

"Hope for a good turnout," she declared as Tuesday's meeting ended. "Hope for no snowstorm."

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


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