Rivendell to hold ballot vote on reduced budget in May

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-17-2024 6:15 PM

ORFORD — A revote on a 2024-25 budget for the Rivendell Interstate School District will take place on Saturday, May 18.

The Rivendell School Board set the date for in-person Australian ballot voting during a meeting Tuesday night, after residents from the district’s four towns of Fairlee, Orford, West Fairlee and Vershire rejected a proposed $15.7 million school budget by a vote of 240-143 during the annual school meeting on Saturday.

While the board is still ironing out the details of the revised proposal, they voiced their approval on Tuesday for roughly $420,000 in budget cuts proposed by Business Manager Nancy Murphy.

That would lower the spending plan to roughly $15.3 million, or about a 3.4% increase over the current budget.

The proposal voters rejected Saturday represented a 6.6% increase over the current budget.

If the proposed $15.3 million budget is approved, Orford property owners would see an estimated 1.6% increase in the school tax rate as opposed to 5.2% increase under the budget that failed.

That would amount to a projected tax rate increase of 37 cents, from $22.49 to $22.86 per $1,000 of assessed value. If the original budget had passed, the projected rate for Orford would have been $23.68 per $1,000 of assessed value.

“The three Vermont towns will be likely to see a decrease in their tax rate,” Murphy said in a phone interview this week.

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That is primarily due to two reasons: Fairlee, Vershire and West Fairlee stand to benefit under Vermont’s Act 127, which partly shifts education funding to more rural and smaller districts.

Additionally, Orford has a larger share of the student population. Last year, Orford had 29.74% share of the student population and this year they have 31.19%, which shifts more of the budget costs to Orford residents, Murphy said.

Board members are planning to meet again Monday evening to further discuss the budget and hold a public comment session where residents can weigh in on the new proposed budget. Information about the meeting will be posted to the school district’s website, nhrivendellisd.schoolinsites.com.

During Saturday’s school meeting, residents took board members to task for not doing more to reduce expenses as enrollment has declined. The district serves children from Orford, Fairlee, West Fairlee and Vershire at Westshire Elementary School in West Fairlee, Samuel Morey Elementary School in Fairlee and Rivendell Academy, a 6-12-grade school in Orford.

In the last decade, the number of students decreased from 486 to 421, according to data from the district.

Last November, the School Board approved a plan that called for closing Samuel Morey in 2027. On Tuesday night, board members discussed how to further respond to taxpayers’ concerns, including using additional funding from the undesignated fund balance to further offset taxes.

The board also discussed and appeared to support an additional warrant article for the May 18 vote that would ask voters whether to use an additional $100,000 of the unassigned fund balance to further reduce the tax rate.

That would be on top of an article voters approved Saturday that would use $500,000 of the fund balance to offset the amount to be raised by taxes.

The majority of Murphy’s proposed cuts come from level funding to-and-from school transportation for a savings of around $80,000; contracted counseling services of around $50,000; support and administrative staff reductions of around $90,000; and a 10% cut across all “non-salary and non-benefit lines” such as supplies and books, Murphy said.

Teacher contracts were issued Wednesday, after the teachers union granted a two-day extension for the Vermont deadline of April 15.

While voters rejected the budget on Saturday in a paper ballot vote from the floor, board members had three options for the new vote, school moderator David Hooke explained. They could go with a floor vote, Australian ballot voting via mail or Australian ballot voting in-person with an option for early voting at town clerks offices. In order to conduct Australian ballot voting via mail, the school board would need approval from the four town’s Selectboards, Hooke said. During Tuesday night’s meeting, board members favored Australian ballot voting with an early voting option.

The state of Vermont, Hooke said during the meeting, will cover the cost of the election.

“I honestly think we’ve got a better chance of getting a budget passed … by using an Australian ballot format and having more voters,” board vice chair Terry Martin, who represents Orford, said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.