Chelsea, Tunbridge vote down school budget for second time

Chelsea Public School
The Chelsea school building, which serves kindergarten through 12th grade, was built in 1912. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

This story by Tim Camerato was published by the Valley News on June 22.

CHELSEA — Voters in Chelsea and Tunbridge again rejected their shared school district’s proposed budget, leaving some officials to consider further spending cuts they say could impact athletics and transportation. 

Residents voted, 266-143, Saturday to defeat the First Branch Unified School District’s proposed $6.98 million budget, which was about $268,000, or 4%, more than the spending plan for the school year that just ended.

Meanwhile, school officials in Strafford are celebrating the passage of its $3.35 million school budget during a revote also conducted Saturday.

The Strafford spending plan, which was approved, 126-69, is about $145,200 higher than the budget for the 2019-20 school year, or an increase of 4.5%.

The strong no vote in Chelsea and Tunbridge follows the 106-46 March defeat of a roughly $7 million budget, which then saw the First Branch School Board cut its foreign language program by a full-time position and reduce hours for guidance and art staff.

“As far as what we can do, there’s not a whole lot of areas that we have control over to cut,” School Board Chairwoman Kathy Galluzzo said Monday. “We really don’t have a lot of wiggle room right now.”

She said the board may look next to transportation and athletics budgets for cuts.

“Honestly, I’m not sure I’m in support of cutting a lot more because it’s really going to affect our kids and that’s not why I got on the School Board,” she said.

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Officials predicted the new budget would have resulted in residential property tax increases of 7.6 cents per $100 of assessed value in Chelsea, and 12.3 cents in Tunbridge for those residents who aren’t eligible for Vermont’s income sensitivity program.

It’s not yet clear how the full First Branch School Board will respond to Saturday’s vote. A meeting is planned for Wednesday when members are expected to discuss the next steps.

Under state law, the school district will go forward with 87% of this year’s current budget, which would amount to a spending plan of $5.8 million.

The School Board also could consider offering a level-funded budget, according to a June 15 presentation.

Superintendent Bruce Labs said he assumes the School Board will first attempt to determine why voters rejected the spending plan.

“They want to know why and they’re going to probably conduct some meetings to try to find out why,” he said in a phone interview Monday morning.

Labs said there was little indication at a budget forum last week that the warning article was going to fail, adding he thought the results would be closer.

But the budget vote shouldn’t come as a shock, according to Chelsea resident Linda Kuban, who said the results reflected a tension between the district’s two towns.

“Other than pleasing the state, we do not have a merged school district here,” she said.

The district’s two schools, which each retained their K-8 student population after merging under Vermont’s Act 46, both have their own principal and appear to act largely independently, Kuban said.

She also noted that residents have asked the School Board to explore consolidating the two schools into one or possibly offer a joint middle school. Neither was reflected in the more recent budget.

“I would not be at all surprised to have a petition come out to unmerge,” she said.

Galluzzo said the district’s merger agreement will not allow the closure of a school for about three more years.

She added that the School Board was planning to hold public forums on reorganizing the schools by grade levels, but those were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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In nearby Strafford, school officials are breathing a sigh of relief after their budget passed muster.

There, the resignation of one teacher allowed the School Board to move around staff and cut about $26,600 out of its March proposal, which had been rejected on a 54-39 vote.

School Board Chairwoman Sarah Root said the new budget was presented with accurate per-pupil figures and property tax estimates, which became a problem during the district’s annual meeting.

“(Residents) wanted us to come back with a budget that we could stand behind 100%,” she said. “And that’s what we did.”

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