Candidates and supporters greet voters on Election Day at the middle school polling site. 

Voters Reject School Budget

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Thursday March 09, 2017

This year’s ballot asked voters to approve city and school budgets, each with a taxpayer increase of less than three percent over the previous year, and to elect a water commissioner, two city councilors and two school board directors. But for a ballot with no unusual asks or complicated bond items, friction between those with opposing stances on issues ranging from airport related topics to the change of the Rebel name at the high school raised the temperature of the community over the course of the last several months.

South Burlington’s school budgets are typically approved without much fanfare, although in 2009 the budget passed by less than ten votes. This year’s numbers tell a different story. Voter turnout was high with nearly 27 percent of active voters casting their ballot, the school budget was defeated by 55 percent of the vote. District 7-1 voters approved the budget, but it failed in the city’s other three districts. The final tally saw 1,585 yes votes and 1,960 no votes.

Alex McHenry and Steve Wisloski, South Burlington’s newly elected school directors, will join the board this week. Crafting a new budget will be the focus as they start their terms. Superintendent David Young and John Aubin, business manager, will work with the board to rework the budget and present a new set of numbers before bringing the next budget to a public vote.

The city budget passed with ease, with the approval of nearly 59 percent of voters.

Katie Langrock and Jimmy Leas, challengers for the city council seats, had strong support, but the incumbents prevailed. Tom Chittenden and Pat Nowak will continue in their roles as city councilors.

Pre-Town Meeting

More than 100 residents gathered for Pre-Town Meeting March 6 at F.H. Tuttle Middle School to hear about the budgets and candidates’ viewpoints on various issues. Despite the community buzz about controversial topics leading up to voting day, the audience was calm and reserved, with only a few questions asked.

City Council Chair Helen Riehle opened the meeting, and Deputy City Manager Tom Hubbard led the city budget presentation covering the basics of the proposed budget. Hubbard pointed out that that 22 cents of each taxpayer dollar covers all of the city services provided to residents, the rest going to education. In addition, he showed how the city compares to area towns’ proposed budgets in terms of tax impact and South Burlington ranked the second lowest, Williston is the first. There were no questions from the public on the city budget.

Next on the agenda was the school budget, with Superintendent David Young, Business Manager John Aubin, and outgoing School Board Chair Patrick Leduc presenting the numbers and fielding questions from the audience. The proposed school budget came in at $50.5 million and while Young and Aubin worked to highlight the cost savings and increased revenue both realized and projected, a few long time taxpayers had questions with a common theme—concerns about the long-term sustainability of annual tax increases. In this year’s budget, revenue was able to offset the 7.65 increase over last year, resulting in a property tax increase of 2.10 percent.

A resident of 13 years, Allen Gross noted teacher salaries as a point of concern, especially since less than 30 percent of the city’s residents have children in the school system. Gross said the median household income in South Burlington is $47,000 and in Chittenden County, it is $55,000, while the district budgets a teacher salary (including benefits) at $80,000.

Candidate Forum

Alex McHenry, one of two school board candidates running unopposed on the ballot presented his platform next. Fritz Burkhardt stood in for candidate Steve Wislowski, who was unable to attend. Both touched upon their professional backgrounds and qualifications, the budget, maintaining the district’s schools, and perhaps the most contentious topic, the Rebel name. They each expressed their desire to support the school board and superintendent’s recommendation to retire the name in August 2017. They also said they were not inspired to run as a result of one issue that sparked their respective interest, alluding to write-in school board candidates Marcy Brigham and Dan Emmons, who were invited to speak next.

Brigham said she was running to add diversity to the school board and to meet the needs of students and residents alike. She also touched on the budget and expressed a desire to lower costs and promote tuition student enrollment to increase revenue. Emmons was on the same page in terms of the budget, noting that he sat on the citizens’ budget group years ago and felt he never had the chance to dig into the details. He also noted he feels that the administration is disconnected from the students and that the costs associated with replacing the Rebel name could be better spent, possibly toward a “re-branding effort” using the word “Rebel.” Brigham and Emmons have previously said that while the board’s decision to change the Rebel name was a catalyst for their involvement, there are many issues that concern them. Their questions about the budget initiated support from a larger group of residents organizing over the last few weeks to press for a ‘no’ vote on the school budget. The group is also pursuing a petition drive they hope will be presented as a ballot item in a city vote. The petitions call for all sports teams in the South Burlington School District to carry the name Rebels, and stipulate that funds from the city or school could not be used to pay for the name change.

Without offering an opportunity for public questions of the school board candidates, moderator Vince Bolduc moved right into the council candidate forum where incumbents Pat Nowak and Tom Chittenden faced their opponents Jimmy Leas and Katie Langrock respectively. The candidates fielded prearranged questions on the budget, airport, City Center, and open spaces, and answered from their prepared responses.

As the evening drew to a close, Bolduc allowed time for two public questions. One audience member commented that a true debate style forum with unexpected questions would allow for more genuine candidate responses. Also of note was a question asking how the candidates would engage more with the public in a time of political disenchantment.

The city council and school board reorganize this week with a full slate of tasks ahead.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent