Windham Northeast Union school budget vote canceled

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GRAFTON — Elementary school directors from Westminster, Grafton and Athens agreed Monday to cancel Thursday's vote on the proposed $6.8 million school budget, a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.

The directors of the Windham Northeast Union Elementary School District also agreed not to set a new date for the vote, saying they would revisit the issue once the order from Gov. Phil Scott to stay home and avoid public interaction is lifted.

"It's not safe for voters to gather," Lynn Carey, assistant superintendent for the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, told the Monday evening gathering via Zoom video conferencing. The annual vote was slated for Thursday at Bellows Falls Union High School, which is in Westminster.

Chairman Jack Bryar of Grafton said the three-town elementary school district has several options in the future - to re-warn a face-to-face floor meeting once the coronavirus has passed, or have the budget voted on by Australian ballot, either by mail or at the polls.

In addition to the proposed budget, which would result in per pupil spending of $18,734, voters in the three-town school district would elect a total of six school directors, two from each town.

Bryar said he had consulted extensively with the Vermont Secretary of State's office, state legislative leaders and Windham County legislative leaders, as well as the three towns' administrators, on what route to take.

Just as the Zoom meeting started, word came from the Grafton Select Board, that it had just met and supported postponing the April 9 vote, and moving toward a new date once the virus has subsided, Carey reported.

Bryar said recent legislative action had made it possible for the school district, which was merged under protest under Act 46, to postpone the vote and delay it to a date to be set.

"We do not know when it will be safe," Bryar noted.

Bryar said having a traditional floor meeting via a video conferencing app like Zoom is not possible under the law because verifying voters' identities would be next to impossible.

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"We can't do an electronic meeting of this type," he said.

A district-wide mail-in Australian ballot vote would be similar to a giant absentee-ballot vote, said Jessa Westclark, one of Grafton's school directors.

Such a vote has never been held in Grafton before, said Grafton Town Clerk Kim Record.

"We'll put them through an autoclave," joked Bryar.

Whatever route the school district decides to take, it will reimburse the three towns for their costs in holding a special meeting for the vote.

Bryar said he was hoping the elementary school budget vote could be held at the same time as the special Westminster Town Meeting which needs to be held, since voters did not approve the town budget in late February, but he said that did not seem to be in the cards.

The vote to postpone the school budget meeting was unanimous.

One resident, Charlotte Gifford of Westminster, urged the board to make an effort to distribute the school district's annual report, and to hold some "purely informational" public meetings about the budget, again via Zoom.

Carey said the reports had been distributed to each town hall already. The board agreed to have the full report online as soon as possible. The first such informational meeting was tentatively set for April 23. Bryar said he wanted to make sure the meeting doesn't conflict with any other government or school meetings in the district.

The three-town school district was created last year under local protest, and the three towns are members of the challenge to the constitutionality of Act 46, which is currently pending before the Vermont Supreme Court.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 556-2147.


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