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Town of Roxbury Sues MRPS

Photo courtesy of RVS.
The Town of Roxbury and the parents of a Roxbury child have filed a lawsuit complaining that the Montpelier Roxbury Public School (MRPS) district improperly held an informational budget hearing at 8:30 a.m. on the morning of Town Meeting Day instead of during the prior 10 days, as the suit claims is required by law. 

Because of the alleged mistake, the town and parents are asking the court for a preliminary and permanent injunction requiring MRPS to suspend a vote on a revised budget planned for April 30. The Washington Superior Court has scheduled an expedited hearing on the injunction request for Tuesday, April 23 at 10 a.m.

In its complaint, the plaintiffs from Roxbury also ask the court to require MRPS to hold another vote on the original budget that was defeated on March 5, apparently hoping for a different outcome. All full-time licensed teachers working at Roxbury Village School have reportedly agreed to transfer to vacant teaching positions in the Montpelier district next year, but some might be available to shift back to Roxbury if the school were kept open.

The original school budget would have led to an estimated 24% homestead tax rate increase in Montpelier; the city’s voters defeated the budget with 1,507 “no” votes to 1,214 “yes” votes. Roxbury voters were looking at a tax rate increase of 12.9%; those voters voted in favor of the budget 172-139. The ultimate fate of the budget was determined by the combined votes, which added up to 1,646 against and 1,386 in favor.

As a result of that defeat, the MRPS School Board crafted a new budget that would close the Roxbury Village School and make other cuts, raising the Montpelier tax rate by an estimated 13.84% and the Roxbury budget by 3.59%. The board approved the revised budget by a vote of 10 to 6 (the seven Montpelier board members get two votes each and the two Roxbury members get one vote each, a proportion based on population). 

Early voting has already begun on that budget, with the polls scheduled to be open on April 30. An informational hearing on the revised budget has been scheduled for 5 p.m. on April 29, available to voters either in person at Montpelier High School or online.

The Roxbury lawsuit says that by holding the first budget’s informational hearing on Town Meeting Day, the MRPS district violated a statute that requires municipalities voting on a budget by Australian ballot to “hold a public information hearing on the question by posting warnings at least 10 days in advance of the hearing” and to hold the hearing “within the 10 days preceding the meeting.”

The Roxbury complaint, filed by Burlington attorney Claudine Safar, states: “The District’s failure to conduct its informational meeting within the 10 days prior to the (and after the voting had already commenced in Montpelier) prevented the voters from having the necessary information to make an informed vote.” Roxbury voting began that day at 10 a.m.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Montpelier had not been served with the lawsuit. Judge Timothy Tomasi has said the district may file a written response by Friday, April 19 at 2:00 p.m.

One legal question that may arise in the suit is whether the Town Meeting Day informational meeting was or was not “within the 10 days prior to the vote.” If it was not, another issue could be whether the timing was consequential to the result. If the informational hearing had been held 12 hours earlier, on that Monday night, would the result have been any different?

In a 1997 Vermont Supreme Court suit against the Montpelier School District, lawyer David Putter lost a suit claiming the school board broke the law by spending public money on a newsletter to promote its budget. The court ruled that if there was an irregularity, it was not sufficient to warrant the “extraordinary remedy” of setting aside an election. The court found the newsletter was not “outrageously illegal,” nor had it “significantly skewed the election.’’

The Roxbury lawsuit tackles head-on an issue the MRPS district is likely to raise: whether the lawsuit asking for a revote was filed in a timely fashion. A state election statute says a vote may be challenged by “any legal voter entitled to vote on the office or public question to be contested” by challenging the vote within 15 days of the election. The vote was on March 5 and the suit was not filed until April 16, well beyond 15 days.

But Roxbury and the two parents argue that a budget vote is not a public question vote and that therefore it is not governed by the timing statute. “No specific time period is provided by statute to contest a budget vote,” the suit claims. If that position is correct, voters could challenge budget votes weeks or months or even years after they are held.

The argument Roxbury is making depends on another statute that describes when Australian ballots can be used. Roxbury’s lawyer argues that there are three different types of voting eligible for Australian ballots — offices, budgets and public questions — and says that the latter two are not the same thing.  

That statute addresses how certain public questions should be warned and states in part that “[a] vote on whether to use the Australian ballot on public questions other than the budget shall be in substantially the following form.” That wording — “public questions other than the budget” — could give the district an argument that the budget is simply one type of public question and that the 15-day rule does apply in this case, meaning the lawsuit should be dismissed.

One other argument that might arise in this case is whether the statute regarding informational hearings held in the 10 days preceding the vote applies to MRPS. The statute cited by Roxbury applies to municipalities and does not mention school districts. However, other statutes suggest school districts are generally subject to the same laws as municipalities.

But MRPS is a unified union school district and there is a specific statute that specifies in detail the information that such districts must include in warnings of votes, and it does not mention hearings or any need to warn of hearings. So an additional question may arise whether this statute applying to unified union school districts or the statute regarding Australian ballots (requiring hearings) prevails.

Montpelier City Clerk John Odum said he had not been involved in the dispute over the hearing as this is a school district matter. He did say he had assumed budgets need to be challenged within 15 days, but said this would be an issue for the court to determine. Odom also said he wondered why, if the “no” vote was invalidated, the school district could not propose whatever budget it wanted instead of reverting to its first proposal.

The lawsuit was filed with two affidavits. One was from Melissa Rutter, the parent of a first grader in Roxbury, who said she is “concerned about the negative impact that bussing my first grader back and forth to Montpelier will cause to my family,” including having the child ride the bus with high schoolers.

Rutter also said she relied on the aftercare program at Roxbury Village School, which she said is affordable and convenient. “The afterschool program offered by the Union Elementary School in Montpelier costs $92 per week, which is prohibitively expensive to my family and many others. Further, even if I could afford it, the Union Elementary School afterschool program may not be served by the bus, leading to increased difficulty in getting my child to and from school.”

The revised MRPS budget that may be voted on April 30 does include provisions for continuing aftercare at Roxbury Village School next year and improving the bussing of Roxbury students.

According to a May 25, 2018 Times Argus article, Melissa and Lawton Rutter live near the Roxbury-Northfield town line, and in 2018 wanted their daughter to attend Northfield Elementary School, where she had gone to preschool, instead of going to Roxbury Village School, 1.5 miles away. They asked the MRPS district to pay the tuition for their child to attend Northfield Elementary. The district declined.

The Rutters also asked the Paine Mountain district, which includes Northfield, if their child could attend Northfield Elementary School tuition free, but that district also turned them down, according to the Times Argus. Paine Mountain District Chair Peter Evans noted the family could have been accommodated if Roxbury had opted to join the Paine Mountain district. “This was a Roxbury decision to merge with Montpelier and majority rules,” he said at the time.

A second affidavit was filed by Jon Giuffre, the chair of the Roxbury Selectboard, who stated that “without a timely information meeting, voters did not have the opportunity to know what they were voting on or how it would impact their communities” and that “closure of the school will have a negative impact on Town residents.”

Guiffre was chair of the Montpelier-Roxbury merger committee and has been a vocal opponent of closing the Roxbury School. Until recently, he was an appointed member of the Roxbury Selectboard, and then was elected to serve on the board on March 5.

Montpelier and Roxbury voted in 2017 to merge their school districts, despite being separated by 17 miles and two towns, Berlin and Northfield. The impetus was Act 46, a law designed to force smaller districts to merge, although by the time of the vote, the law had been amended so that districts the size of Montpelier were no longer required to merge. Roxbury was still under an obligation to merge with some other district, or else the state would have forced it into merging with another district.

The dispute over the MRPS budget vote comes in the midst of a wave of statewide school budget defeats this year driven by large projected tax rate increases that are due to Act 127 — a new student weighting law that included a flawed 5% tax cap — and rising school expenses, including soaring health care costs.

Statewide, nearly one-third of school districts defeated their school budgets on Town Meeting Day, including many in central Vermont. Since then, revotes have been held in a number of districts, with some passing on the second try but at least 12 failing for a second time.