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WESTMINSTER — The Bellows Falls Union High School Board narrowly approved a proposed budget for the 2021-22 school year Monday night that shows a 2 percent decrease over the current budget.

But three school directors almost defeated the budget with their insistence that the board know what the actual impact will be on taxpayers before the budget is approved.

On a 4-3 vote, the board approved the proposed $7,502,808 million budget, which Principal Christopher Hodsden said is a two percent decrease over the current budget of $7.655,000.

But Directors David Clark of Westminster, Deborah Wright of Rockingham and Stephen Fine of Athens voted against the budget, largely because the tax impact is not known.

Clark said that, considering the Scott administration has already warned school districts that Vermont residents face a 9 percent increase in school taxes, he couldn’t approve a budget without knowing what the local impact would be.

Other directors and Hodsden said they have never known in the past, that budgets have been approved only with the “best guess” of the supervisory union’s business manager. All laid the blame on the state Agency of Education not giving local towns the budget information they need.

Clark said that in his 20 years of being on the BFUHS board, he has only failed to support the budget twice — including this year. And he urged his fellow directors to hold off making a decision until Jan. 21, the last day for finalizing a Town Meeting warning, in hopes that the state will come up with more definitive numbers.

Clark said the “nine percent hit ... was not a comforting feeling.” He reminded the board that Gov. Phil Scott had in Clark’s words “double-crossed” Vermont school districts in 2017 by announcing a cut in state aid to education, after budgets were passed at town meeting.

Hodsden said that the BFUHS budget is down 2 percent, although he conceded he didn’t know what the tax impact would be.

The board debated about how much money to include in the budget in a so-called “contingency” fund, which actually is money set aside for teacher contract negotiations. To not include money in the budget could leave the school district open to complaints of failing to negotiate in good faith.

Hodsden noted that teachers and staff were currently working without a contract, and thus any 2021-22 fiscal year budget would have to include money to cover two years’ worth of increases.

Hodsden and Business Manager Flora Pagan included $163,934 in the special “Board of Education” fund to cover negotiations. He said about $13,400 was trimmed from the proposed budget in the past week because of firmer figures from the River Valley Technical Center, where some BFUHS students attend classes.

Voting for the proposed budget were Directors Jack Bryar of Grafton, Margo Ghia of Rockingham, Priscilla Lambert of Rockingham and Brenda Farkas, also of Rockingham.

The board also approved a plan by Hodsden to bring more students back to four days a week, in-person teaching, starting no earlier than the end of February vacation, and no later than the start of the spring academic quarter. No specific date was given.

Hodsden said he polled the school community on the issue of increasing students’ in-person days (they are currently on a two days a week in person schedule) and got a sharply divided response.

He said he received 264 responses, with 51.5 percent of the people liking the idea of four days a week of in-class instruction, and 48.5 percent opposed.

Unlike the lower grades, the high school has to maintain a six-foot distance between students and their desks.

“Vermont is in good shape, and schools are in even better shape,” said Hodsden, referring to the positivity rate of virus testing. Vermont currently has a 2.9 percent rate, while school staff have a 0.9 rate, he said.

He said the staff favored returning to four days of in-person teaching, 62.5 percent for it to 37.5 percent against.

The principal assured the board the school could do it safely, and follow all the state’s coronavirus safety protocols. He said if there is a virus outbreak, or the state comes out with additional protocols, the school would act accordingly.

He said the schools in Vermont have done a good job of keeping the virus out of the schools, with social distancing, wearing masks, and sanitizing constantly. He said the school is working on a plan to hold “remote” classes within the building, if there isn’t adequate space for a particular class.

He said he wants to give teachers adequate time to plan for the return to in-person teaching.

Hodsden read a letter from a parent, Stephanie Mitchell, who is adamantly opposed to increasing the number of in-person school days. Mitchell said she is worried about the rise in COVID-19 cases in the area.

Bryar urged Hodsden to consult with the three Dartmouth College’s medical school doctors who have been advising the supervisory union on coronavirus safety protocols in the schools.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.

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