GRAFTON, Vt. — Ten days into the new fiscal year, the towns of Grafton, Athens and Westminster are still without a school budget. While uncertainties still surround Monday’s special meeting of the newly formed “forced merger” named the Windham Northeast Union Elementary School District, transitional board Chair Jack Bryar hopes to at least have a voter-approved budget moving forward.
“We have to be able to cover payroll,” Bryar said in a phone interview on Monday. “I would like to know that I can.”
Currently the three towns are funding school operations through the summer with a loan of $463,000 from Community Bank. Members of the transitional board signed the loan agreement on June 26. Bryar said that during the initial weeks of the new fiscal year, the State of Vermont allows districts to borrow against their budgets at a default tax rate of $1 per $100 of assessed value. He does not expect Vermont to announce the education tax rates for each school district until late August or September.
Even though voters in the three towns already approved school budgets for their individual districts, the State of Vermont notified the districts in the spring that those budgets would hold no validity because those school districts would stop existing after June 30.
Bryar said that the warning’s proposed operating budget $6,959,645.23 for the 2019-20 school year represents the sum of the budget amounts passed separately by Athens, Grafton and Westminster at their respective town meetings, so the July 15 vote is essentially a revote of what voters have already passed.
According to a meeting packet released last week, Grafton’s portion of the budget would be $972,968, Athens’ portion would be $1,095,795, and Westminster’s would be $4,775,346.
Getting the message out
“There’s no practical reason why the budget will not pass,” Bryar said on Monday, adding that the voters already approved the budget with overwhelming support.
However, Bryar worries that some voters might see this meeting as a yield to Act 46 and vote down the budget in protest.
Bryar published a letter to voters last week to explain that the districts have joined temporarily while awaiting the Supreme Court’s ruling on Act 46, in order to ensure the schools have funding. Should the court uphold Act 46, Bryar wrote that the transitional board will remain in place to take needed action to comply.
“Later this year we expect to submit a new governance model for your approval,” Bryar wrote. “We want to provide you with an alternative that better reflects community models than the model presently imposed on us. In the weeks to come we will be looking for volunteers to help us develop that permanent governing structure.”
Bryar said in the interview that he still strongly favors a highly decentralized educational model, despite the state Agency of Education already rejecting the districts’ alternative proposal last year, which would have allowed the districts to remain mostly independent but with increased collaboration between schools and staff.
Last night the former Westminster school board members held an unofficial board meeting, which Bryar wanted to encourage the public to attend for informational purposes. However, the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union has ceased posting announcements for the Westminster board because the state no longer considers it a legal entity. Unlike Athens and Grafton, the Westminster school board did not dissolve as mandated.
Legal questions about the meeting
“I would be shocked if the state were to challenge the budget vote [if passed],” Bryar said on Monday. “They are more concerned about the risks if the vote was negative.”
Without an approved budget, the towns cannot ratify the teachers contracts, Bryar said.
Assuming that voters approve the proposed budget on July 15, several procedural questions may remain, particularly about the organizational meeting that was supposed to approve the budget for this year, which has remained in recess since April 10 while awaiting a response from the state attorney general.
The union district doesn’t have the same legal counsel as Superintendent Chris Pratt, who said last month that his attorney and the district’s have different interpretations of Act 46’s language regarding what governing body has legal authority to warn the budget meeting. At the April organizational meeting, voters would have elected a permanent union district school board prior to voting on the district budget, but those attending voted to send the meeting into recess before electing members. Pratt’s counsel believes that the organizational meeting may need to be reopened in order to authorize the budget, whereas attorneys for the transitional board said that Act 46 authorizes the transitional board with the same powers of any other school board.
According to Ted Fisher, communications director for the Vermont Agency of Education, the transitional board’s primary function is to warn the meeting at which the voters elect members of the initial board and to prepare a draft budget to present for consideration. However, Fisher said that the agreement “anticipates that there may be circumstances in which the Transitional Board will need to perform other functions.”
Fisher would not speak specifically to any school districts in Vermont but said that in situations of legal uncertainty about the language, “a new union school district should rely upon the legal advice of its attorney.”