By Kim Howard
School board members and some voters expressed surprise last month when the Williston School District budget failed for only the second Town Meeting Day vote in at least a generation. Yet a closer look at Williston’s voting history shows, on the whole, a voting community largely split over school spending.
Secret balloting for town and school budgets began in Williston in 2001. With the exception of 2004, the year in which taxpayers saw revisions to the Act 60 state education funding law, the margins by which the local school budget has passed have not been enormous.
In the last seven years, Williston has voted 10 times on the school budget, including four times in 2003. In Vermont that year a record number of communities voted down school budgets, in part a symbolic vote of disdain for Act 60. Williston was no exception. While the second budget barely passed in April (a margin of 21 votes), some voters petitioned for a third vote. The May re-vote failed. The June vote – a 2.8 percent budget increase, but a drop in per-pupil spending given rising enrollment – passed by a healthy margin.
In half of Williston’s last 10 school budget votes (2001, 2002, April 2003, 2005 and 2006) the passing margin has been less than 100 people. In 2005 the budget passed by a mere 12 votes; last year the budget carried by 69 votes.
No comparisons can be made with Champlain Valley Union High School budget since votes among member towns – Charlotte, Hinesburg, Shelburne and Williston – are co-mingled.
As support for the Williston school budget has largely danced between the 45 and 55 percent marks, support for the town budget has been diminishing.
In 2001, the first year of secret balloting in Williston, roughly 70 percent of voters supported the budget. By 2005, voters supporting the budget had dwindled to just over 55 percent. The low mark was this year in which 53 percent of voters passed the town budget.
The anomaly is 2004, a year in which voters overwhelmingly supported all budget items, including a $2.6 million sidewalk bond. That year 77 percent of voters supported the town budget.