St. Johnsbury Voters To Weigh-in On School Budget

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(Host) Normally, debates about how to spend local tax dollars erupt at town meetings in March and settle down by the end of mud season.

But in this abnormal economy, a few cities and towns in Vermont are still waging budget battles.

In St. Johnsbury, tempers have been flaring for months, and voters will vote for a third time Tuesday on a controversial school budget.

VPR’s Charlotte Albright reports.

(Sound of customer at check-out counter)

(Albright) It’s a busy morning at Pettico Junction, a popular place to gas up and grab a snack at the junction of Route 2 and Interstate 93, in East St. Johnsbury.

Owner Jim Rust has two jobs – to keep his customers happy, and, as Chair of Saint J’s select board, to help govern a town that’s been especially grumpy this year.  At town meeting in March, angry taxpayers voted down a $1.2 million municipal budget, forcing about $100,000 in cuts before approving a scaled down version at a second election.

(Rust) "It’s like a devastating event happened, now you have to react to it, and I don’t think a lot of people were prepared for that, not prepared for it in the community, not prepared for it in the government."

(Albright) The select board reacted by eliminating the Office of Economic Development and cutting the hours of the Zoning Administrator. That pleased fiscal conservatives but angered others, including Town Manager Mike Welch, who quit.  Jim Fitzgerald, former mayor of St Albans, was hired on an interim basis. As the search begins for his successor he’s trying to calm everyone down.

(Fitzgerald) "Nobody has any money. And so I think this select board has done a good job in recognizing that and trying to adjust to the times. We have to live within our budgets and we can’t continue to get more and more and more and I don’t speak for the school system, but they have to share in that also."

(Albright) The school board budget was also shot down-twice. So teachers reluctantly agreed last week to a pay freeze. That’s supposed to save about $100,000. Another $200,000 are being squeezed out of supplies, technology, and tuition estimates for students who, having no public high school, attend the private St. Johnsbury Academy.  School board Chairman Werner Heidemann is resigned to the reductions, and urges voters to turn thumbs up on Tuesday.  But he hopes the public meeting on Monday night will not trigger the kind of angry outbursts that prompted police to subdue an angry citizen at school board meeting a few months ago:

(Heidemann) "That kind of behavior on the part of adults reflects very poorly on being examples for the children."

(Albright) Like many who hold local office here, Heidemann thinks voters found it easier to reject town and school budgets because, for the first time this year, they marked ballots anonymously, rather than raising their hands at town meeting. Otto Wurzburg, a sixth grade teacher and negotiator for the St. Johnsbury Teachers’ Association, agrees, and also laments what he sees as a loss of civility in public meetings.

(Sound of chickens)

At his farmhouse on the outskirts of town, Wurzburg hopes supportive voters will turn out for the vote. If the school budget fails a third time, St. Johnsbury will have to borrow-but only, by state law, up to 87 per cent of its proposed budget. That, he says, may not be enough to get St. Johnsbury off the list of the state’s 10 worst performing schools, under the federal No Child Left Behind law:

(Wurzburg) "You know we’ve made big improvements with our scores and NECAPS and those things but if the funding is cut to 87 per cent, and programs are cut, it’s going to be an incredible struggle to continue the growth that we’ve shown over the past five years."

(Albright) Even if the voters do accept the reduced school spending plan along with the already approved town budget, taxes will only go down, on average, about $30 per household next year. But that, some say, is a savings worth fighting for, no matter where you live in these tough times.

For VPR News, I’m Charlotte Albright, in St. Johnsbury.

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