New budget goes to voters

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TOWNSHEND — After the elementary school portion of the West River Education District failed by three votes earlier this month, a slightly revised version will be presented to voters Tuesday.

"We basically left it to the administration, we kind of sent them a target," said Al Claussen, board chairman. "We said we do not want to affect programs."

That proved a little more difficult when another teacher needed to be hired, but about $13,000 was shaved from the spending plan. Windham Central Finance Director Laurie Garland said administrators were directed to manage the budget with the decrease.

An informational meeting about the budget will be held remotely at 7 p.m. Monday at zoom.us/j/91662747347.

Claussen said education tax rate projections will stay approximately the same as previously proposed. Rates were expected to increase by 6.06 percent in Jamaica, 6.38 percent in Newfane and 5.24 percent in Townshend. Brookline was anticipated to see a 0.47 percent decrease.

Superintendent Bill Anton said the district typically sees about 600 and 800 residents participate in voting. Only 439 participated June 10, voting 221-218 against the elementary school portion and 279-245 for the high school portion.

A flyer about the upcoming vote was sent out to community members in hopes of increasing turnout for Tuesday's vote.

"During these uncertain times, our board's aim is to provide stability and direction, and we need the help and support of all voting members," Claussen wrote on the flyer. "We are excited about exploring future educational opportunities for students of the West River Valley, but it all starts with this critical vote."

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Claussen said the overall budget — which covers Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School, Jamaica Village School, NewBrook Elementary School and Townshend Elementary School — was reduced four times since administrators first presented a draft. The initial vote was broken into two portions, about $5.79 million for pre-k-6 and more than $6.2 million for high school, because Windham only votes on the latter.

Windham still operates an elementary school district. Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane and Townshend vote on both portions of the budget.

Garland has described the budget as being "artificially split."

"It really needs to be voted yes all the way through or no all the way through," she previously said, "because the board will come back and look at it as a prek-12 budget."

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Claussen said although the ballot says the budget will result in an increase of more than 9 percent per equalized pupil, spending is only proposed to increase less than 2.8 percent. He also pointed to cost drivers that out are out of the board's control such as state-mandated health care, fewer tuition students and declining enrollment.

"We are planning for the future to stabilize the tax rate and invest smartly in our students and community join us!" he wrote.

The board is hosting long-term planning meetings every second and fourth Monday via Zoom. Agendas, documents and links to participate can be found at windhamcentral.org.

Claussen told the Reformer he is looking forward to focusing on the long-term planning. He noted the district is coming out of a trend of declining enrollment, according to new projections.

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"Health care continues to be an overall threat to the budget," he said.

Claussen is concerned about an excessive spending threshold set by the state and penalizing the district. He said it does not allow districts to meet the "extraordinary needs" they face.

Claussen is a proponent of making changes proposed in a pupil weighting study. Equalized pupil counts by the state are currently based not only on the number of students but factors such as age, socioeconomic background and ability to speak the English language.

Recommendations in the study are expected to help rural schools and improve equity statewide.

"Obviously, COVID has completely set aside many things the state is looking at," Claussen said. "But if we could get back to that and get more of a sense of equity across the state, which also would affect our tax rates in this part of the state pretty significantly, that would be great."

He said the board is trying to make "the best possible decisions" for students and taxpayers.

Voting will occur from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Brookline Town Hall, Jamaica Town Office, NewBrook fire house, and Townshend Town Hall.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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