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Roxbury School Debate: Defeat The Budget and Close It This Year, Or Study The Issue and Potentially Close It in 2026?

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.
Over 20 Montpelier and Roxbury residents, taxpayers, and parents discussed the future of the Roxbury Village School at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library Feb. 26. Some called for defeating the school budget and closing the Roxbury school this year. Others called for going forward with a study about closing the small elementary school, and possibly closing it next year, giving the community time to prepare.

As the fiscal year 2025 Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools budget threatens huge tax increases under pressures from Act 127, closing Roxbury and moving its 42 students to Union Elementary School came into the conversation as a way to save an uncalculated portion of the school’s total operating cost of $1.5 million on the district’s total $32 million budget, which is up 12% from last year.

The FY25 MRPS budget will be voted on at Town Meeting Day, March 5, and currently includes RVS. The most recent estimates show tax increases of 23% for Montpelier and 12% for Roxbury.

The forum was organized by Richard Sheir, a Montpelier resident who hosted the event along with Jim Murphy, chair of the Montpelier Roxbury school board.

 Sheir opened with: “I am going to oppose the upcoming budget, for very particular reasons, and they have to do with fiscal management.”

“I’m here to explain the budget. As a board, we do not tell you how to vote,” Murphy said. “I get why everyone is freaking out about (23% tax increases). I’m freaking out about it. I don’t like it. We are worried about cost containment.”

“It’s like, holy crap, what’s going on,” said Dan Jones, a candidate for mayor in Montpelier.

Debra Sargent, a Montpelier resident who said she lives on a fixed income, commented “one of my fears is we are going to lose a significant number of people in this town.”

“If we want new families in, if we have dilapidated schools that we’re not funding, that’s not going to help either,” Murphy replied.

On Feb. 7 the school board formed a committee to study the future of Roxbury’s school and engage the communities of both towns. Waiting a year to potentially close the school “is the compassionate way to handle that issue with our neighbors,” Murphy said.

Ben Pincus, a Roxbury resident and “proud graduate of Roxbury Village School,” said, “I have no doubt that the school will close, but we just need that one year.”

“I just want people to know that the Roxbury school has very high quality teachers, and a high quality education,” added Katie Swick, a Montpelier resident and Roxbury Village School teacher.

Immediate closure “would have a difference on our taxes this year,” but the board “did not have time to look at the numbers, to get the public input. That’s what we’re committed to doing,” said Murphy.

By opposing the budget, Sheir said he is “much more fiscally cautious.” Quickly closing the school that supports “40-some-odd children” would create savings meaning “that we have not only a full reserve, but we have past a full reserve,” he said.

“Keep in mind, it’s not $1.5 million, because you still have to educate those children once they’re at Union,” said Sheir.

When planning the next year’s budget, the school board decided not to use all its reserve funds because of unpredictable future legislation and upcoming testing and potentially costly remediation of PCBs in the air, soil, and building at the high school. 

“We want to keep the budget stable,” said Sheir.

“I’m a little upset about the format of this,” said Pincus. feels kind of one-sided, a little bit like Richard, this is kind of your show, if you’re advocating for the rapid closure of Roxbury Village School.” He accused Sheir of not communicating “anything about our community,” saying, “you say Roxbury parents have nothing to fear in fully integrating into our district this fall. I’ll tell you what I fear. I fear the breakdown of the cohesion of Roxbury as a result of the school closing, fast.”

Act 46 Intentions

Sheir said the legislation’s intent for Act 46 — a 2017 law that pushed school districts to consolidate — had been to “shrink the number of union school districts that we have simply to get rid of the administrative overhead,” and “economic inefficiencies.” In Vermont, “206 districts, in 185 towns, have formed 50 new union school districts, a reduction of 158,” said Sheir.

Sheir brought up the tax incentive from the Montpelier Roxbury merger, which ended last year. “ Roxbury was told that, in essence, that this might not be forever,” he said.

“There’s a strong possibility that (the school) will indeed close some day,” said Murphy, “It’s an expensive school that is going against the trend of what is proving sustainable in the state.” However, Murphy noted that the wording of the Montpelier-Roxbury merger agreement states the board “could” — not “would” — close the school after four years.

teacher, white woman brown hair in rocking chair, reading to children sitting on floor cross legged.
Inside the Roxbury Village School Kindergarten classroom, teacher Katie Swick reads aloud. Photo by Carla Occaso.
Tax Rates Not Finalized

Act 127, which adjusts the state funding formula for schools, was changed when bill H. 850 passed on Feb. 22, as the legislature worked to fix flaws midstream. “It’s a good long-term move by the legislature,” but it will hit Montpelier’s taxes hard this year, said Murphy.

The Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools fiscal year 2025 budget now is “essentially a level budget,” he said, with “nothing new thrown in.” The 12% budget increase comes from the new student weighting in Act 127, a 16% increase in healthcare, an 8% increase in teachers’ compensation, and Montpelier’s common level of appraisal, which creates a “13% raise baked in.”

The effect of H. 850 on local tax rates is hard to predict; it depends on what other districts do with their budgets. Key numbers are not finalized until May, but the tax rates are expected to creep down. 

“We are still, as a community, two communities, faced with meeting the needs of our students,” said Nathan Suter, Montpelier resident. “As a community, it’s not our fault that the state hasn’t figured out, well, how to fund education despite tinkering with it.”

If voters defeat the budget, “by law we’re required to cut at least $1, and send it back to the voters,” said Murphy. Given the reduction in force deadline from the union contract, a new budget would need to be completed by late March. Murphy said it is “very unlikely” the effects of H. 850 and the dollar yield from the state will be final by then.

If Roxbury Village School is removed from the FY25 budget and closes by Fall 2024, “how that transition would take place, what support would be given to the families, I don’t have the answer to those questions. And what would become of the building? I don’t have the answer to that question,” Murphy said. The merger agreement says Roxbury could buy the school from the district for $1.

To significantly reduce next year’s budget without closing the school, would require “rushed” and “potentially painful cuts,” he added.

“My critique is, in our town government and to some degree the schools, I think we’ve over bureaucratized a lot of things,” said Jones. “I really encourage you, if the citizens decide that the school budget is not passed, to really take a look, deeply, at what your management choices are,” he said. “Too many bureaucrats, and not enough teachers.”

Tina Muncy, a Montpelier resident who was on the Montpelier Roxbury merger committee, said if closing Roxbury Village School gets delayed, but is seen as likely, then teachers could look for new jobs this summer, and the district may not find replacements at a school that might close in 2025. If the budget is defeated and the school closes this year, however, there are enough expected vacancies in Montpelier to absorb most of the Roxbury teachers, she said.