By Stephanie Choate
Twenty-seven votes made all the difference on Town Meeting Day.
Williston residents rejected the Williston School District 2013-2014 budget 602-629, according to unofficial results posted on the town website. It is the first time the school budget has failed since 2007.
A total of 1,241 voters—approximately 15 percent of the town’s 8,070 registered voters—turned out to the polls, passing all other items besides the Williston school budget.
Williston School District’s $17.5 million budget represented a 5.09 percent increase from the 2012-2013 budget.
At Town Meeting Monday night and at the polls, several voters expressed uncertainty over the school’s 1-to-1 iPad initiative, a $96,000 line item in the budget. The initiative would have provided iPads for fifth and sixth graders, with a goal of eventually providing iPads for all middle schoolers.
Residents Pat and Frank Pakulski both voted against the Williston Central School budget. Pat Pakulski said it’s the first time she has voted against the school budget, and cited the iPad initiative as her reason.
“It should have been taken off (the budget) and voted on separately,” she said.
Residents at Town Meeting echoed those sentiments, expressing concern about the cost, necessity and lifespan of the technology.
“It’s a big disappointment,” said School Board Member Giovanna Boggero Wednesday morning. “We work very hard to try to make sure that we balance our tight budgetary restraints, given the current economic climate, with making sure that we provide our children with the best education possible.”
She said that low voter turnout, as well as the iPad initiative, likely contributed to the budget’s defeat.
Williston School District Principal Walter Nardelli told the Observer Wednesday morning that he was “not surprised” the budget did not pass.
“We knew all along that it was very close,” he said.
Williston, like other schools in the district, struggled with increases to the baseline budget—the cost to offer the same services as in previous years. Williston started with a 4.18 percent increase to the baseline budget, largely due to increased health care costs and scheduled 3 percent salary increases.
“That’s one of the highest numbers we’ve ever started with, and that’s just to open the doors,” Nardelli said.
At Town Meeting, board members stressed that the school budget has increased by less than 2 percent over the past five years.
Nardelli said the district tries to improve education every year while being reasonable to taxpayers—often a difficult task.
He added that he thinks the iPad initiative “absolutely” contributed to the budget’s defeat, calling it a “lightning rod issue.”
“There are still a lot of people that are at ground zero as far as understanding the educational impact,” he said.
At Town Meeting, Nardelli called the iPads a “game changer” in education. The devices allow for constant and immediate learning, 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
Separate ballot articles are typically reserved for building projects or large equipment purchases, Nardelli said, and officials wanted the initiative sustainably built into the budget.
Nardelli said he is not sure what the board will decide to do about the iPad initiative in the next iteration of the budget, but school officials have already started consider options.
“We know we have to bring the budget down,” he said. “What that means, though, is people and programs. We’re going to have to look carefully at what are the programs we would like to offer students in Williston and how we afford it.”
Boggero said she has not spoken with any other board members, but that the board will likely try to gather additional community input to strike a more palatable balance between the interests of children, parents and taxpayers.
“I guess we’re back to the drawing board,” she said.
Nardelli estimated that the school district would hold another vote by May at the latest.
Schools have until June 1 to send approved budgets to the state.
OTHER BALLOT ITEMS
Voters passed all other ballot items, including town and Champlain Valley Union High School budgets and a bond for a new public works facility.
Action at the polls was slow but steady, said Town Clerk Deb Beckett, and 15 percent is a typical voter turnout for a year without a primary.
Resident Lois Mason said she always votes, no matter the issues at hand. A native Vermonter, she has lived in Williston since 1973.
“It’s a tradition, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to be involved,” she said.
Williston residents approved a $5.9 million bond for a new public works facility on Monday, voting 631-577 in favor. The cost would be offset by $1.1 million offered for the current facility on James Brown Drive, meaning the estimated cost is $4.8 million.
Resident Andy Mikell—who said he votes “every year, every time”—voted in favor of the bond.
“It seems to make a lot of sense to upgrade,” he said. “It’s an old facility in an inconvenient place.”
Town Manager Rick McGuire said Wednesday morning that the first major step is to wrap up research and negotiations on a parcel of land for the new facility. McGuire said the town is interested in a parcel of land near the village, but did not specify which parcel.
“We’re obviously pleased the town supported it, a little disappointed in how close it was, but we’re going to make every effort to save as much money as we can as we move forward with the project, and yet still end up with a product that will meet the needs of the community into the future,” McGuire said.
The town budget passed by a wide margin, 831-392.
Several residents were elected to town and school boards in uncontested races. Jay Michaud and Jeff Fehrs were reelected to the Selectboard; Jeanne Jensen and Polly Malik to the CVU board. Incumbent Kevin Mara and newcomer Kevin Brochu were elected to the Williston School Board. Brochu replaces former Chairwoman Holly Rouelle, who stepped down after seven years on the board.
❑ Adopt an $8,845,370 municipal budget?
❑ Authorize the construction of a new Public Works facility and related improvements including land acquisition expenses at a total cost not to exceed $5,900,000?
❑ Adopt a Williston School District budget of $17,468,262?
❑ Borrow $218,000 to purchase two Williston school buses?
❑ Issue an $88,000 bond for lighting upgrades to Allen Brook School?
❑ Adopt a Champlain Valley Union High School budget of $22,038,941, a 2.86 percent increase from the 2012-2013 budget?
❑ Borrow $210,000 to purchase two CVU school buses?
❑ Issue bonds of $328,600 to finance a boiler conversion, HVAC conversion and energy-efficient lighting upgrades?
❑ Allocate CVU’s current fund balance of $154,000 to use in the school’s budget?
NOTE: All numbers are unofficial tallies provided by town and school officials. CVU votes include ballots cast in Charlotte, Hinesburg and Shelburne.