WESTMINSTER, Vt. — Voters in Athens, Grafton and Westminster passed, by a voice-vote, a shared school operating budget of $6,959,645.23 for 2019-20 at a special meeting Monday night, according to meeting minutes shared by the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union.
A transitional school board of Athens and Grafton representatives formed in June under the name The Northeast Windham Union Elementary School District, warned the meeting last month in order for their schools to have funding while the towns await the Vermont Supreme Court’s ruling on the constitutionality of Act 46.
The approved $6.9 million budget equals the combined budgets approved by each town in March, according to the transitional board Chair Jack Bryar, Grafton. When Act 46 went into effect on July 1, those previous budgets disappeared with their respective districts.
Despite approval of the new budget, the transitional board reiterated that the actions of this meeting do not mean they affirm Act 46’s legality. In support for adding that disclaimer to the warning Bryar explained that such disclaimers are necessary to allow the board members to roll back these actions if the supreme court rules in favor of the suing towns.
There is also disagreement between different legal counsel regarding this transitional board’s authority to warn this meeting to approve a budget. The three districts, by state requirement, held a merger meeting on April 10, for residents to consider a budget and elect officials for a unified district. Instead the voters called to recess the meeting until they received a response by the state attorney general. The attorney general has not responded to requests and the meeting is still in recess.
Attorney Larry Slason, representing the three towns in the Act 46 lawsuit, said he believes the Articles of Agreement grant the transitional board the same authority of the permanent union board, which should include the power to organize this meeting. The supervisory union’s counsel, the Burlington firm Stitzel, Page and Fletcher, interprets the language differently, and said that the budget must be authorized by reopening the recessed meeting.
Board members explained that approving the budget was necessary in order to receive a line of credit to pay expenses. Last month the transitional board acquired a $463,000 loan from Community Bank to cover current school expenses but supervisory union Finance Director Edie Cole said that the schools would have no line of credit unless voters approve the budget.
With approval of the budget the schools will have enough credit to carry them until late October.
The Vermont Agency of Education has not commented to date on this special meeting. According to Supervisory Union Board Chair David Clark, Westminster, the agency “is well aware” of the meeting and had taken no steps to prevent it. Clark said he believed that the agency recognizes the importance of the vote in order for the schools to have operating funds and the meeting’s legality.
The transitional board will hold a meeting tonight at Grafton Elementary School to assign members to the supervisory union board, subcommittees and town boards, and to designate a member to sign warrants.
Currently only members of Athens and Grafton are on the transitional board.