By Kim Howard
Mud season this spring in Williston may be a little messier than usual as the community faces last week’s local school budget defeat. Residents largely point to tax bills as the reason for the rejection as school officials meet this week to decide next steps.
Williston’s proposed school budget was one of only17 defeated out of 250 statewide on Town Meeting Day, The Associated Press reported last week. In 2003, the only other year in this generation of voters to see a Williston school budget fail, 43 school budgets were voted down. In Chittenden County, Milton and Winooski were the only other communities last week that did not pass their proposed school budgets.
The budget for Champlain Valley Union High School was passed by 57 percent of the voters of Charlotte, Hinesburg, Shelburne and Williston. The local budget was rejected by 56 percent of Williston voters.
A number of random people questioned by Observer staff said they didn’t feel well informed about the issues so weren’t sure why the $15.9 million proposed local school budget didn’t pass. Those who did hazard a guess overwhelmingly came up with the same response.
“I think it’s mostly a message that they’re trying to send to the town in general that enough is enough with taxes going up,” said Paula Borah, who’s lived in Williston almost 18 years.
It’s tough for people to support budgets that go up faster than people’s salaries, Borah added. The proposed school budget was an overall 7 percent increase; actual per-pupil spending was a 6.1 percent increase.
Members of the Williston parent-teacher organization Families as Partners wondered if voter turnout also may have contributed to the budget’s defeat, according to minutes from last week’s FAP meeting.
Voter turnout was not wildly atypical, however. Of Williston’s registered voters, 24 percent cast ballots last week. The 10-year average in Williston is slightly higher than 29 percent.
Two years ago Williston passed the local school budget by 12 votes. Last year it passed by 69.
‘AFFORDING THE SCHOOL WE WANT’
Chittenden South Supervisory Union Superintendent Elaine Pinckney, a Williston resident, said there could be wide-ranging reasons the budget didn’t pass. Questions at town meeting about the school budget included the status of teacher contract negotiations, teacher contributions to health care, and the number of school administrators. Pinckney said she’s heard no single overriding concern.
“I don‘t think what you’re hearing in the community is ‘we’re unhappy with this school, we don’t think it’s doing a good job,’” Pinckney said. “I think what you’re hearing is ‘were having trouble affording the school that we want.’”
Parent Annie O’Shaughnessy, who has children in seventh and ninth grades, seemed to share that sentiment as she was looking for a movie in Passport Video last Friday night. O’Shaughnessy said her family moved to Williston nine years ago because Williston offered the best program for students with special education needs of any town in Chittenden and Addison counties. The support was so strong, neither of her kids required services beyond fifth grade, she said.
“So to find out that this town is no longer supporting the school district and its budget is really shocking to me and surprising,” O’Shaughnessy said. “And I feel a little embarrassed by how little I know about it. It just never occurred to me that a school budget wouldn’t pass in this town.”
Yet she said she can understand why the budget failed.
“I don’t think I can afford to live here next year, period, because I’m a single person now and single people can’t live here,” she said. Among residents, she added, “I think there’s a lot more feeling of protecting what they have and not feeling able to take any more taxes because they’re already stretched.”
Rep. Mary Peterson (D-Williston), a member of the Ways and Means Committee, suggested Williston’s school tax rate may already be less than what was advertised before the vote. Early tax estimates were based on a state base tax rate of 90 cents. The House of Representatives passed a rate of 89 cents last month; Peterson said though the rate must still pass the Senate and the governor, she cannot imagine either would propose a higher rate “unless something really unforeseen happened.”
With a reduced state base rate, the local school tax rate drops to about $1.75 – roughly a $20 savings per $100,000 of a home’s value. For a home valued at $300,000, that’s a $60 smaller school property tax bill.
The first regularly scheduled Williston School Board meeting after the budget vote was scheduled for Wednesday night, after the Observer went to press. Officials said they expected dates for additional meetings, and potentially the next vote, would be set at that meeting.
CSSU Superintendent Pinckney, who was district principal in Williston when the budget failed in 2003, said the conversations ahead may be difficult.
“At the same time that obviously people are saying ‘cut the budget,’ there are people out there who don’t want the budget cut who will be upset if the budget is cut in areas they don’t want cut,” she said.
When the school budget failed for the second time in 2003, Pinckney said board members and administrators had a meeting with the people “leading the charge” to vote against the budget.
“If there’s anything I learned, it’s do that sooner,” Pinckney said this week. “The thing is, this time I don’t think there’s a group out there. I think people individually went to the polls and said ‘too much.’”