“I’m not optimistic today that the Legislature is going to offer us anything,” said Caitlin Hollister, chair of the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board when commencing a budget discussion at the board’s May 13 meeting. With the clock ticking on the opportunity to warn a budget for FY21, and still no change in the Legislature regarding a drafted bill that would impose a budget on budgetless school districts, the board decided it would be in the public’s best interest to hold a vote.
On May 13, the board voted unanimously to hold a vote on June 16. It also voted unanimously to approve budget D, a $39,772,342 budget.
If this number looks familiar, that’s because it’s the same number as the budget presented and voted down on Town Meeting Day. However, while the numbers are the same, the budgets are not. One more time for emphasis: the numbers are the same, but the budgets are not.
The failed Town Meeting Day budget was merger-contingent, meaning that the savings from this budget were afforded by the consolidation of the middle school. Budget D, on the other hand, achieves its savings through a completely new set of slashed line items, all of which preserve the status quo of current school configurations. For this reason, HUUSD finance director Michelle Baker called the comparison of these two budgets “an apples and oranges comparison.”
BUDGET INCLUDES SAVINGS
The savings associated with the newly approved budget D will include savings incurred from several teacher retirements announced since Town Meeting Day. Additionally, the district will save $80,000 by eliminating personal development workshops for teachers. A $20,000 reduction will come from eliminating legal expenses for potential bullying claims. The district will also hold off on a $15,000 playground equipment installation for Fayston Elementary School, and postpone the installation of $ 6,000 worth of sound panels for Moretown Elementary School. An additional $69,000 will be saved in line item reductions determined by principals from each school. These specific line items differ for each school, but are largely composed of expenses for books, furniture and other general school supplies.
Although Baker was adamant that the two budgets, despite being the same dollar amount, were as different as apples and oranges, members of the public were weary about the board’s decision to present the same budget number to voters. Greg Shepler, Harwood social studies teacher, told the board that people should realize that the merger is a piece of the puzzle. “Discussion of the merger needs to be a part of this, or its just going to look like it’s the exact same budget,” said Shepler.
Another member of the public, Brenda Hartshorn, a teacher at Moretown Elementary School, spoke up to say that presenting a different number, even at a $10,000 difference, would be a better strategy for the board, since “it’s a psychological vote as well.” Brian Fleisher, another member of the public, agreed that the number associated with budget D might cause problems. “I don’t have a problem with the number, but if people somehow conflate this with the Town Meeting budget, it could get voted down again,” said Fleisher.
MIGHT BE CONFUSING
The board considered warning a lower budget then that of the one presented on Town Meeting Day, both because presenting the same number might be confusing, and because COVID-19 has put taxpayers in a desperate financial situation. “I would feel more comfortable coming to people with a lower budget than the one presented on Town Meeting Day,” said school board member Alex Thompson, Waterbury. Thompson explained that while some people vote against the Town Meeting Day budget because of the merger, others voted it down because it was just too high.
School board member Christine Sullivan, Waitsfield, even made a motion to approve a lower budget of $39,650,000, but school board members were not comfortable voting on an arbitrarily low number without a clear picture of the specific line-item savings associated with it. “I’d be more comfortable voting for a budget where we have the line items broken out,” said school board member Jonathan Clough, Warren. Vice chair Torrey Smith, Duxbury, also urged the board not to choose a budget that the board hasn’t studied the impacts of.
Thus, with the $39,772,342 budget approved and a June 16 voting date set, the board and town clerks must decide how to hold a vote, considering the health dangers posed by the coronavirus. The idea of a hybrid voting option, which would involve a combination of mail-in ballots and in-person voting was considered. “A mail-in vote could be cumbersome for the town clerks,” said Kelly Hackett, Waterbury. Lisa Mason, Moretown, was intrigued by the idea of drive-through voting stations.
While a voting method has yet to be chosen, one thing is certain: the public will be voting on a new school budget this June.