On July 8, 2020

Rochester-Stockbridge school budget fails

By Katy Savage

School Board members are looking for cuts after the proposed $4.39 million Rochester-Stockbridge Unified District budget failed 141-110 on June 30.

Rochester residents approved the proposed budget 87-47, but Stockbridge voters widely defeated it, 94-23.

“I was disappointed,” said Carl Groppe, who chairs the school board. “We’ll find a way forward.”

The board was scheduled to hold a reorganizational meeting on July 7, after the Mountain Times’ deadline.

“I’m sure we’ll be discussing this at great length,” said Groppe, who was re-elected to his position during the vote. “Regardless of how we do it, we need to get a budget passed.”

The town was supposed to hold a floor vote on the budget in May, but Covid-19 concerns pushed the board to have an Australian ballot vote on June 30.

The proposed budget was nearly level-funded from the previous year’s budget, but would have resulted in a tax increase of $2.74% in Rochester and 2% in Stockbridge.

Groppe said one issue for residents has been the cost of maintaining an empty high school building in Rochester.

Rochester residents voted to close Rochester High School in 2017, but Rochester Elementary School students have continued to use the auditorium and music rooms in the building, since the elementary school doesn’t have those facilities. The majority of the 25,000 square foot high school building is vacant.

“There’s been some concern around the building situation,” Groppe said.

There are 90 students at Rochester School and 44 in Stockbridge Central School.

The board had an analysis of all three buildings in the district conducted last fall, which estimated the costs to upgrade either Rochester building would be significant. While the high school building doesn’t have a gym or cafeteria, the elementary school doesn’t have an auditorium or music room. The report suggested the Rochester Elementary School building would need $1.3 million to $5.5 million in upgrades if students stayed there, while the high school building would need $2 million to $5.5 million in upgrades if elementary students moved to the high school. The report also suggested the option of demolishing parts of each building that weren’t being used, which would cost $360,000 to $770,000 for the high school and $260,000 to $535,000 for the elementary school.

“The board was hopeful…it would be fairly obvious which direction to move in, but it has not been,” Groppe said. “It’s been more contentious than we expected.”

Board members held an informational meeting on June 23, before the vote, and asked residents to hold comments about the buildings until after the vote.

Stockbridge resident Kim Robertson said she felt  “silenced” by the board by not being able to discuss the building maintenance costs, which account for 5% of the budget.

“If we can’t address areas that we’re concerned about, that’s a shame,” Robertson said.

Groppe explained building costs in the budget are based on historical data and can’t be changed.

Groppe’s wife, Julie, who spoke at the meeting as a Stockbridge resident, said students would pay the price if the budget failed.

“I understand the frustration level going on,” she said. “I understand we have two buildings and we don’t need two buildings and we need to figure out what to do with that. If we cut down the budget … it’s going to impact students, it’s going to impact teachers and it’s going to impact the quality of education.”

White River Valley Supervisory Union Superintendent Jamie Kinnarney said the board would seek community input and could hold a budget revote as soon as September.

“We want to be really thorough,” Kinnarney said.

The board will have to borrow money to keep the school operational until a new budget is passed.

Under Vermont law, if a budget isn’t passed by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, that district can borrow up to 87% of the previous year’s budget.

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