EAST MONTPELIER — Annual Town Meeting Day went off without any hot elections or unusual ballot items, but the trend of upward school spending, downward student enrollment and increased property taxes spawned conversation in the gymnasium of East Montpelier Elementary School on March 3.
Both budgets passed for U-32 High School and East Montpelier Elementary School, even though both were up and enrollment is down. U-32’s total operating budget is $14,915,715, up from 14,833,463 budgeted for 2014-15 (although a deficit of $163,244 is projected, according to the school report). East Montpelier’s 2015-16 elementary school budget is $4,133,843, up from $4,119,588 the previous year. U-32 went from 814 students in 2010 to a projected amount of 793 in 2015. The elementary school saw enrollment drop from 245 in 2010 to 213 in 2015. However, East Montpelier Elementary school board Chairman Rubin Bennett explained during the meeting that more incoming younger students are expected, and they can’t just get rid of workers only to rehire them as student numbers increase.
When the public was invited to ask questions or make comments after Bennett finished his presentation, talk of consolidation emerged to address the fact that the school, which just underwent $8 million worth of additions and renovations, would see fewer and fewer students. “We are, in fact, on a per pupil basis, spending higher than state average,” said school board Vice Chairman Stephen Looke, who said East Montpelier spends $16,840 per pupil while the state average is $14,411.
Plans to ease future spending include “modeling what consolidation with other school districts would look like,” such as moving East Montpelier sixth graders to U-32, which would make room for additional students in grades pre-K through fifth, Bennett said. A meeting to study financial implications of reconfiguring schools is coming up on March 25, he said.
At least one community member echoed that idea as perhaps necessary. “I am a strong supporter of the school, but I can’t help looking at these numbers and being concerned about where we are going. We’ve had a 25 percent budget increase in the past five years. I don’t think that is sustainable (and a solution) may have to include consolidation,” said Nathan Phillips.
Another way out could be attracting more families with children to East Montpelier, according to school board member Flor Diaz Smith. “It is one of our goals to have families move here for our schools,” she said.
As for the town portion of the meeting, the proposed budget passed and all the incumbents are back in office, according to Terri Conti, town clerk, who herself was re-elected unopposed to a fourth term. The select board asked voters to approve $1,620,701 for “laying out and repairing highways and for other necessary town expenses,” for the upcoming fiscal year beginning in July. $38,614.00 was allocated for East Montpelier’s share to support the Kellogg Hubbard Library and other allocations were set aside to operate the Four Corners Schoolhouse, East Montpelier Cemetery, East Montpelier Trails and Montpelier Senior Activity Center. In addition, $8,333 was approved for the Green Mountain Transit Authority.