by Carla Occaso
BARRE — This year both Barre Town and Barre City voted against the school budget, which is extremely rare, according to City Clerk Carol Dawes. Both Spaulding High School and the Elementary budgets went down in flames on Town Meeting Day.
“Because we (Barre City) share Spaulding with the town (Barre Town) the results get comingled. Barre City gets added to Barre Town final (vote count). It can fail in the City but if it passes in the Town by a wider, margin it passes.” This scenario is fairly common — where the budget fails the city but passes in the town, but not this year. “This is the first year in my memory that it failed,” Dawes told The Bridge by telephone, noting she has been clerk for nine years.
The Bridge reached out to Superintendent John Pandolfo by email and posed a few questions:
The Bridge: Why do you think voters opposed this year’s budget?
John Pandolfo: I can think of two primary reasons. One is that the the voters saw the wording on the ballot article and did not like the percent increases indicated in per pupil spending. Spaulding’s budget increase showed 4.3 percent, and Barre City School District’s budget increase showed 6.2 percent. Those look like high numbers and our voters are fiscally conservative. The figures are somewhat misleading because they do not show the full picture of our spending relative to other communities or of costs we have little or no control over. Barre Town had a similar expense budget increase to the other two budgets but had more revenue to contribute so their ballot only showed a 1.6 percent increase in per pupil spending. Other nearby districts have higher spending and/or higher increases and had their budgets pass.
A second reason is that Governor Phil Scott sent out a loud message several weeks before Town Meeting Day, and reiterated his message a week before, that Vermonters should scrutinize their budgets and vote down budgets with big increases. Barre voters have a connection to Governor Scott and will listen to him. However, Barre educational spending is already among the lowest in the state, and our increases this year were largely to meet unfunded mandates and/or to catch up from leaving important things out of last year’s budgets in an attempt to stay under the spending thresholds that existed when budgets were developed but repealed before they were voted on. Our districts understand the need for cost containment and have demonstrated a commitment to it over the years, as evident in our low per pupil spending. However, we are obligated to provide a quality education to our students, and strive to balance those needs every year.
The Bridge: When do you think a new budget will be put before the voters?
Pandolfo: We will likely plan for the re-vote of both the Barre City School District budget and the Spaulding budget to take place on May 9, because the Barre Town municipal budget will be voted on May 9.
The Bridge: Any other messages you would like to get out to Barre residents?
Pandolfo: We want residents of Barre to understand that we work very hard to present fiscally responsible budgets. We know that residents are concerned about their property tax rates and do everything within our power to control those tax rates and still provide a quality education to our children, all while meeting the mandates put upon our educational system by Montpelier and Washington.
The Spaulding Union High School District is the lowest spending union high school district in Vermont, at a projected $13,428 per equalized pupil for next school year. For the current year, Spaulding’s equalized per pupil cost is $12,892. The next lowest union high school district spends $13,559, the average union high school district spends $15,489, and the highest union high school district spends $18,112. We are spending $2,597 less per student than the state average.
In addition to that, the Spaulding budget would have resulted in a 0.35 cent decrease in the Barre City tax rate and a 0.88 cent decrease in the Barre Town tax rate. We are not sure that voters understood that.
The Barre City School District is also among the lowest spending districts in the state, at a projected $12,602 per equalized pupil for next school year. For the current year, Barre City’s equalized per pupil cost is $11,862, ranking 232nd out of 254, meaning only 22 out of 254 districts ranked lower. The average district spends $14,654, and some districts spends over $19,000. We are spending $2,052 less per student than the state average. We are not sure voters understand that.