Towns approve school budgets, despite increases

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(Host) It appears school budgets around the state generally fared well at town meeting, with little debate. That’s despite the fact that, statewide, budgets increased an average of 6.5 percent.

VPR’s Steve Zind visited one town to see how voters would deal with a proposed school budget hike.

(Sound of crowd gathered at Strafford town meeting.)

(Zind) Three woodstoves warmed the Strafford Meeting House while outside, beyond the wavy old glass windows, the snow piled up. About 16 percent of Strafford’s registered voters came to this year’s town meeting. But the crowd thinned out after lunch, leaving a smaller group to consider a school budget of just over $2.5 million.

(Moderator) “Town of Strafford school district warning of annual meeting. March 1, 2005.” (Gavel falls.)

(Zind) Strafford faces declining student enrollment, rising special education costs and relatively high per pupil spending. At first glance, these factors might make for a perfect storm in budget terms. But Strafford voters have traditionally shown a willingness to support their schools and school officials say student test scores are among the highest in the state.

What’s more, the current board earned the confidence of voters when it turned around a budget deficit a few years ago. Tom Diamond is the outgoing chair of the Strafford school board.

(Diamond) “I really think the people out there are back to the point where they really do trust the board and if we tell them this is how it is and this is what’s necessary.”

(Zind) What’s necessary, according to Diamond, is a budget that’s nearly six percent higher than last year. The biggest single contributing factor is the cost of providing special education to 35 of the town’s students. It’s the subject that sparked the most questions from voters.

Resident John Freitag said the state should look at reforming special education to make it more effective and less expensive for towns.

(Frietag) “It seems like special ed, which I believe was passed about 25 years ago, is beginning to be sort of like health care and some other issues.”

(Zind) School board chair Diamond says he doesn’t expect any near term relief from the state and paying for special education will remain a challenge.

(Diamond) “You want to take care of your kids, that’s your goal. But it’s harsh to have to pay that much for it. The state mandates the program and then turns around and tries to give you back as little as possible.”

(Zind) Despite the budget increase, the education tax rate in Strafford is lower than what it was before Vermont’s education funding law, Act 68, was implemented two years ago.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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