Voters Reject School Budget, Again

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Thursday April 13, 2017

The City of South Burlington, historically known for easily passing school budgets, has defeated the district’s second proposal. Although this revised budget slashed $810,000 from the one proposed in March and would have resulted in a tax decrease, 57 percent of voters used the ballot to indicate their displeasure. Forty-three percent voted in support of the budget.

Voter participation was almost identical to the March vote at 24 percent. Of the 3,424 ballots cast, 841 were submitted as absentee or early ballots; all voters who participated in early voting in the March election were automatically mailed a ballot.

At a special budget meeting held the night before the April 6 vote, a number of residents were present to voice their concerns about district spending practices, and to question the retirement of the Rebel name and its associated costs.

Although it led to increased general awareness of the budget numbers, the name change is not the only reason for the budget defeat.

The sustainability of year over year tax increases has been been a recurring topic and it reached the tipping point during this election cycle, resulting in action at the ballot booth. The increase in spending, coupled with slight enrollment decreases, in combination with the fact that less than 30 percent of South Burlington residents have children of school age are all factors in this complex puzzle. Residents also expressed concern over the uncertainty of contract negotiations with teachers, and that cuts made in the revised budget did not address the cost drivers (maintenance) that would inevitably come back later in the form of higher taxes,

The initial proposed budget came in at $50.5 million, which was a 7.62 percent spending increase, and carried a 2.1 percent tax increase. In March, 55 percent voted against that budget, while 45 percent voted in support. After the budget defeat, the board had 30 days, according to the city charter, to bring a revised budget before the voters.

Twenty-one reductions along with other cost saving measures were made in the revision. Of the costs nixed, about fifteen items involved deferred maintenance, which would not currently impact health or safety.

The revised numbers brought the spending increase from 7.65 percent down to 5.92 percent and the tax rate from an increase of 2.1 percent (from FY‘17) to a decrease of 0.07 percent; the total budget decreased from $50,565,404 to $49,754,590.

Both the initial and the revised budgets included $47,914 to support the Rebel name change, mainly for uniforms needed for athletic competition. Young noted that $25,000 per year is budgeted for uniform changes and the $47,914 would simply accelerate that process and ultimately result in future cost savings.

This last item was clearly one of the sticking points for some residents who voted the budget down, noting that the money could be better spent toward deferred maintenance.

Residents also wondered, given that the district is currently in negotiations with the staff and teachers’ unions, if a budget defeat would bolster the case for lower salary increases than the South Burlington Educators Association has proposed. Currently, 80 percent of the budget goes to salary and benefits. Martin LaLonde, who has participated in four separate negotiating sessions over the years, noted that in his experience, what happens with the budget doesn’t tend to affect negotiations.

The board held a special meeting Monday morning, April 10, for the purpose of of discussing negotiations in executive session. Board Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald and School Director Martin LaLonde were present as community members arrived at the meeting to express concerns about the budget, the process and the way decisions are being made.

Although next steps have yet to be solidified, the board will re-group and hold a special meeting, Thursday, April 13, at 5:00 p.m. at FH Tuttle Middle School Library.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent