Consolidated Windham Northeast elementary budget OK'd

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WESTMINSTER — Voters from Athens, Grafton and Westminster overwhelmingly approved the first budget for the new Windham Northeast Elementary School District Monday evening, but not before criticizing Act 46 and vowing to continue the fight against the school consolidation law.

The vote to approve the $6.9 million budget had a scattering of opposition, mostly from Grafton residents who are upset with the possible 20 percent increase in their property taxes under the new consolidated school district. The new district will serve about 311 students up through Grade 8, most of them from Westminster.

Most of the people who gathered for the budget vote said they wanted the school board to continue with the lawsuit against Act 46, which is pending before the Vermont Supreme Court.

Under the Athens-Grafton-Westminster consolidation, Grafton's taxes will go up substantially, Athens up a modest amount, and Westminster will stay about the same, according to School Board Chairman Jack Bryar, of Grafton.

The voters of the new district also approved borrowing money — approximately $462,000, according to the supervisory union's finance director, Edie Cole. Cole said the loan from Community Bank, formerly Merchant's Bank, would tide the new elementary district over until mid-October, when, she said, state education money would start coming in.

The vote on the budget and approving the borrowing came not a moment too soon; Cole told the 80 or so voters in attendance at Bellows Falls Union High School that she had no money to meet payroll Friday.

During the meeting, voters from all three towns said they didn't want the budget approval to be interpreted as a capitulation to Act 46, but that it was only undertaken to make sure the two schools' teachers were paid and school would open next month. The gathering ultimately passed an amendment and a resolution spelling that out.

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Cole said the three towns would have to send out supplementary tax bills once the final figures are calculated by the Agency of Education. She said Community Bank has been extremely helpful to the new school district, allowing her to do preliminary work on the loan in advance of the public vote.

It wasn't completely smooth sailing. Voters rejected a move to cut $150,000 from the Project Y program in the Westminster schools, which is an enrichment program held at the former Westminster West School.

Former longtime Westminster school director Dan Axtell had suggested the cut as a way of making things equal among the three town's elementary students, since Grafton and Athens, which run a joint school in Grafton, don't have such an enrichment program.

Axtell said the cost of the enrichment program was about $1,000 per student, or $150,000. But Bryar said cutting the previously-approved Westminster school budget went against everything the reluctantly-merger school district was about: recognition of the individual towns' decision making and budgets.

Bryar also said that any student in the three towns is now eligible to participate in Project Y.

In the end, Axtell's move was soundly rejected.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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