By Polly Mikula
Next month, residents in the Slate Valley Unified School District will vote again on a district budget to fund their schools over a month into the fiscal year. Is the third time the charm?
Voters rejected the school budget on Town Meeting Day and then again on June 9. The district budget was $26.6 million to operate Benson Village School, Castleton Elementary School, Castleton Village School, Fair Haven Grade School, Fair Haven High School and Orwell Village School. “It is estimated that this proposed budget, if approved, will result in education spending of $16,555.28 per equalized pupil. This projected spending per equalized pupil is 2.99% higher than spending for the current year,” according to the June 9 article.
Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell said before the vote that she was admittedly anxious.
“I think we have a really fair budget that we’re putting out to voters and I’m hoping that folks understand that. But yeah, given the economic climate certainly, I’m a bit worried,” she said.
Slate Valley officials strongly encouraged residents to vote by absentee ballots, but in-person polling locations – with social distancing protocols in place – were open in all six of the district’s towns.
In the second vote, the margin of defeat was wider than the first. Residents defeated it by an 812-550 tally. On Town Meeting Day in March residents of the SVUUSD-member towns of Orwell, Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Fair Haven turned away the budget by only a 1,585 to 1,490 margin.
Unlike the March vote, the June 9 ballot didn’t include a major capital bond. In March the ballot included a $59.5 million bond proposal that would have paid for extensive renovations to Fair Haven Union High School, a new “Slate Valley Middle School,” an 8,200-square-foot addition to the Orwell school, and a new, $842,066 elevator system at Fair Haven Grade School.
But a clear majority of Slate Valley voters who showed up for the revote last month were still upset by finances. Additionally, many area residents are suffering through tough economic times related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It is one of the lowest budgets in the area and well under the state average,” Olsen-Farrell told the Addison Independent, a sister paper of the Mountain Times. “Without specific feedback from the community, it is difficult to know why the community is not supporting the budget. I believe the defeat in March was connected to the bond and I wonder if the defeat now is connected to the uncertainty around the Covid crisis.”
The district is hosting budget discussion meetings with board members in each town July 9 at 6 p.m. The next vote is scheduled to be held Aug. 11.
Olsen-Farrell said the new budget would have to look at reductions in “non-essential items such as extracurricular, athletics, transportation.”
John Flowers contributed to this report.