School budget, safety proposal defeated

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Williston voters on Tuesday rejected the proposed local school budget and soundly defeated a proposal to expand fire and emergency medical services. Just 24 percent of registered Williston voters handed down those decisions to the other 76 percent.

The $7.2 million town budget squeaked through and Chittenden South Supervisory Union towns endorsed the $19.6 million budget for Champlain Valley Union High School. A host of town and school officials, all running unopposed, were elected.

“It’s really shocking,” outgoing Williston School Board member Andy Bishop said of the defeat of the Williston schools’ budget Tuesday night.

Board member Darlene Worth agreed the results were “a big disappointment” and said the new board – which convenes next Wednesday at 5 p.m. – will have to go “back to the drawing board.”

“(We’ll be) trying to figure out what to do without destroying programs, and trying to get the people in who are dissatisfied,” Worth said.

Roughly half of the proposed budget increases came in staff salary and benefit increases, while about half were in special education services.

“I don’t see how we can cut special education,” Worth said. “Everything will have to be on the table. That could mean class sizes increasing if there had to be significant cuts.”

The proposed $15.9 million budget was a 6.1 percent increase over the current budget in the amount spent per student. Due to a recommended accounting change (Medicaid-related expenses were listed for the first time in the expense side of the budget, even though there is an equal amount in revenue to offset it), the overall budget increase appeared to be 7 percent. Last year, Williston voters approved a 7.5 percent increase by a 69-vote margin. This week 56 percent of voters rejected the budget, 720-912.

The Williston School Board will schedule another vote for April or May, Worth said, and meetings to gather more input.

Some voters offered their thoughts as they left the polls Tuesday evening.

Giving a thumbs-down gesture with both hands, Williston native Marc Lemire said he voted no to everything.

“We’ve just got to stop raising our taxes, that’s all,” he said.

A man who preferred to remain anonymous said tax increases are “a hard pill to swallow,” but that he supported the school budget.

“I heard some of the presentation by the school last night (at town meeting) and I was impressed,” he said.

After the results were posted, resident Sue Powers told CVU School Board member Meg Hart-Smith and Williston School Board member Andy Bishop why she thought the local school budget failed.

“You don’t listen,” Powers told them. “So what’s the point?”

“Have you come to any school board meetings?” Bishop asked her.

“Yes, years ago,” Powers responded.

“Now, have you come to any of these school board meetings?” Bishop asked, emphasizing the word “these.”

Powers said she had not.

“Then we can’t be listening if you don’t show up,” Bishop told her.

For taxpayers who don’t have their own health insurance, Powers told them, teacher health benefits in particular are “a raw spot.”

“I think it’s ridiculous the percentage teachers have to pay,” Powers told Bishop and Hart-Smith. “They should pay much more.”

Under the current contract for Chittenden South Supervisory Union teachers, including Williston and CVU High School, teachers contribute ten percent of the premium cost of a one-person, two-person or family medical insurance policy. The current contract expires in June. A new contract has been under negotiation since November, but neither teachers nor school board members may publicly discuss how those negotiations are progressing according to an agreement, Bishop said, though they can listen to input.

Williston was the only school budget this week to face defeat in the Chittenden South Supervisory Union. Though Williston saw a higher proposed budget increase than neighboring towns, Williston also is the only town in the supervisory union without declining enrollment.

This is only the second year in at least the last 30 – if not in Williston’s entire history – that Williston voters rejected the school budget. In 2003, when the state saw a record number of school budget rejections in part due to the state’s education funding law, Williston voters twice voted down the budget.

Fire/EMS Proposal

By a more than 3-2 margin, Williston voters rejected Town Article 9 which, had it been approved, would have authorized the town to create its own ambulance service and add six full-time firefighters/emergency medical technicians to the town payroll.

“I’m sick of paying taxes,” lifelong Williston resident David Martel said, adding that he voted “no” to everything. “They could have bought an ambulance for the cupola they put on that fire (building).”

Martel was referring to the new fire and rescue station on U.S. Route 2 that is toward the end of construction.

Martel, who has teenagers, said he’ll never be able to retire in Williston nor will his kids be able to afford to live here. Town decisions – from the kind of desks and computer monitors purchased for town employees to amenities in the new public safety buildings — are like having “champagne taste on a McDonald’s salary,” he said.

Sarah Bunning, who lived in St. George seven years before moving to Williston more than a year ago, said she supported the fire and EMS proposal.

“I think Williston, as it’s growing, needs more of a fire and rescue presence,” Bunning said.

Williston Fire Chief Ken Morton said 200-300 people passing by the Fire/EMS information table this week were asked if they wanted to volunteer to be a firefighter or first responder.

“Goose egg. Nobody. Not a single person put their name down,” Morton said. “I hope in those cases they went in and voted yes for Article 9 because if you can’t serve on the fire department or EMS and you also don’t support having at least a baseline staff…” he trailed off.

Currently full-time firefighters cover fire calls Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; volunteer firefighters handle calls nights and weekends. Williston on-call first responders volunteer for shifts to respond to medical calls nights and weekends and some weekdays. St. Michael’s Rescue provides Williston’s primary ambulance service.

A federal grant would pay all of the salaries for the first two years, and part of the salaries in years three to five. The remainder of the initiative was to be paid for by ambulance service revenue and property taxes. In the initiative’s most expensive year, town officials estimate it would cost homeowners $20 per $100,000 of a home’s assessed value.

Tuesday’s vote may not be the last word, however. Under state law any resident may request reconsideration – either an identical or modified proposal — with a petition of 5 percent of registered voters. In this case, that’s 340 voters. There is no required margin to reverse the vote; a simple majority could carry it.