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Roxbury Community Speaks Up: MRPS Board Looks at Heavy Cuts to Defeated Budget

big white old fashioned school house blue sky white clouds, telephone pole in right foreground.
Roxbury Village School doubles as the Town Hall. Photo by Carla Occaso.
Roxbury community members spoke up at the March 12 Montpelier Roxbury Public School board meeting, advocating for smoother transition in the potential closure of the Roxbury Village School. Preparing for an April 30 budget revote, the school board will likely present a new budget to voters at the March 20 board meeting.

“The demographic and budget trends make closing Roxbury Village School feel inevitable, however the push to close the school at the end of this school year, only three months away, is shortsighted and rushed,” said Jacquelin Frazier, a Roxbury resident.

The first FY25 budget, defeated on March 5, was for $32 million and had a 23% tax increase in Montpelier and a 12% increase in Roxbury.

Superintendent Libby Bonesteel presented budget scenarios to the board. Decreasing the estimated tax rate increase of 24% (based on the defeated budget) to between 10% to 14% could be achieved by making $1.4 million to $2.3 million respectively, in either staffing, busing, and school budgets, or by educating Roxbury Village School (RVS) students at Union Elementary School, she said.

These cuts are additions to what was cut in the first, failed budget. “I have never had to cut budgets in this way. I don’t know many people who have,” said Bonesteel.

“No matter what we do, we’re permanently changing our district,” said Jill Remick, board parliamentarian.

Closing RVS would involve integrating students, making reductions in force, finding a future use for the building, and would leave a hole in the Roxbury community.

Cuts to staffing and busing include eliminating afternoon bus service at Main Street Middle School, Union Elementary School, and RVS, as part of cutting down to 14%. Bonesteel said a bus would still run to and from Roxbury.

High Roxbury Community Turnout

Hannah Bryant, from Roxbury, told the board, “three days ago, nobody would have been telling you, just give us one more year. Like, that was a really painful place for people to get to.” She said Roxbury community members had organized over the weekend to prepare for this meeting.

Melissa Stark Rutter, from Roxbury, asked to avoid “rushing this situation and forcing parents to come up with other alternatives, whether it’s changing jobs, or buying second cars.”

Frazier said the Roxbury community’s request is to give RVS one more year. If Montpelier voters, under the pressures of high taxes, do not agree to keep RVS open in the FY25 budget, Frazier said the community wants to utilize the RVS building for after-school programs, and to fix busing.

 An after-school program “keeps some life in this building and in this space, and it gives us a year to figure out how to transition,” said Rhett Williams, board member representing Roxbury. “It’s a pretty good middle road, it’s kind of a compromise.”

Bonesteel said MRPS has already applied for a $150,000 grant, the cost of an after-school program at RVS. “The challenge with this scenario is staffing,” she noted. “3:30 to 5:30, that’s a tough shift to fill,” for teachers willing to drive across towns or for community members.

Bonesteel said staffing RVS for just one year could be a challenge, as staff could pursue something more stable.

“We’re trying to revitalize the town, we’re trying to bring businesses, we’re trying to bring families,” said Mike French, from Roxbury. “Who wants to move to a town without a school?”

Hazel, a third grader from Roxbury, said for “a bunch of these kids in the school, this school means a lot to them.” Ophelia, also a third grader, said “it’s really fun to be at. All the teachers are really great, and I’d be pretty bummed if this school was closed.”

“I know that this board is incredibly equity focused, and we have not applied an equity lens to this,” said Kristen Getler, board member representing Roxbury. “Our communities are in partnership, no matter where this goes.”

Williams said equity means “real access to everything that the district has to offer. And that also means an alternative thinking about how we move our smallest kids all this distance,” with the ride from the first stop in Roxbury to Montpelier taking up to an hour and a half.

Cuts that eliminate busing for Roxbury are “terrifying,” and a “dealbreaker,” said Bryant. Even with the current busing, “kids are coming to school hungry, they’re exhausted,” and “they’re getting dropped off three, four miles away from home, sometimes without their parents … we’ve got to figure out the busing.”

The board discussed possibly closing RVS while also increasing busing to Roxbury. Bonesteel said each additional bus costs $75,000.

“I would hope that if we don’t physically have the school here, that we would be able to provide door to door bus service,” said Remick.

Two Communities

A 14% tax rate increase from FY24 to FY25 is an estimated $420 more annually on a $300,000 home in Montpelier, and $144 more annually on a $300,000 home in Roxbury.

“I really really worry about property tax increases at this really high level,” said Caitlin Brower, a solo parent and renter in Montpelier. “It doesn’t feel feasible.”

“I think the Montpelier community wants to keep relationships between towns good,” but the current price tag is too high, said Jim Murphy, board chair. A 23% increase, as projected with the first version of the budget, was “ridiculous.”

“Give yourselves time to do this thing right, and recognize that we will partner with you,” said Bryant.

Rushing a decision “is not how Montpelier rolls,” said Cheryl Ecklund, a Montpelier resident. She asked Montpelier voters to “please think with your hearts and not with your wallets.”

Scott Lewins, board member, said he received messages from “folks who voted no, because we didn’t have a plan,” and from both towns saying “take the time, be deliberate.”

“We have been asking to hear from our community members and we are hearing from them,” said Mia Moore, vice chair. “I want to say thank you very much to every single person who wrote us a letter.” However, Moore noted that finding a final budget number that will pass with voters is “a guessing game.”

Statewide, “30% of budgets failed, so it has nothing to do with the school board. It’s everything to do with the legislature,” said Frazier.

Rep. Jay Hooper (D-Orange-Washington-Addison) attended the meeting and agreed that the budget problems in Montpelier and Roxbury originated with Act 46 and Act 127. “This indeed is all the fault of the legislature,” he said.

Speaking on Act 46 consolidation and the legislature, board member Jake Feldman said “the implicit purpose is to close small schools but they didn’t have the guts to do it, so they want us to do it. And that’s messed up.”

The next school board meeting is scheduled for March 20, 6:30 p.m.