On April 10, 2024

Hartland school budget approved by 9 votes

By Curt Peterson

Before Town Meeting the Hartland School Board rescinded its FY25 budget proposal, then reduced it by $500,000 before bringing it to vote, Tuesday April 2. Hartland voters approved the amended $11,040,567 budget 320-311.

Some are not happy. Based on low turnout — Hartland has about 2,600 registered voters — Ben Sirois and Randy Shambo initiated a petition hoping to get the required 5% of registered voters to ask the school board to consider a budget revote. Petitions are placed in the Three Corners Market and Mike’s Store.

Low turnout isn’t the only issue. Rattling small towns all over Vermont is the double-digit education tax increase, plus increased property values reflected in regional “CLA” (Common Level of Appraisal).

Hartland’s CLA adjustment will increase the property tax of a very modest $200,000 home about $1,250 over last year.

Additionally, the state changed the way funding is allocated per student, which negatively impacted Hartland.

Nicki Buck, chair of the Hartland school board, understands the pain the ed tax is causing, but finds recent reactions frustrating.

“We have to realize the facts — if we closed the school, it would not reduce the ed taxes. The budget is not the problem — it’s the education funding formula that has to be changed,” Buck said in a phone interview. “A revote, no matter which way it goes, will not have any effect on the painful tax situation.”

She said the $500,000 reduction in the proposed budget didn’t visibly move the tax rate needle.

“And now we are paying legal fees to deal with the petition!” she said.

While it’s obviously lamentable that the budget vote earned such a small turnout, other issues, too, inspired the Sirois/Shambo petititon. The student population is often under-reported because commenters omit the high school students. Even though Hartland is a “choice-town” for high school, they still have to pay tuition to whichever of schools their students choose to attend. Some complain the budgeting process isn’t transparent. But school officials counter that it was created at open school board meetings that almost no one attends, and has been explained on the school website, on the listserv (multiple times), and at a public information meeting shortly before the April 2 vote.

Windsor County representative Elizabeth Burrows, also a member of the Mt. Ascutney District board, began to trumpet a warning about the upcoming crisis early in January, and has been campaigning for state ed funding reform ever since.

Some tax relief ideas floated include: using income from the property transfer tax, voiding out-of-staters’ current-use tax status rebates (estimated to be $60 million!), or taxing use of the virtual “cloud,” among others.

“The consensus among school board members and those legislators who are aware, is that the whole funding system needs revamping,” Burrows told the Mountain Times. “But it’s still hard for some legislators to realize it’s a CLA problem and not a school spending problem.”

She said this week the Democratic Caucus acknowledged that there is a crisis among their constituents.

“That’s a good sign,” she said, “but the Legislature still just spent a lot of valuable time designating a state mushroom.”

Burrows  doubts there is enough time to solve the problem before tax bills come out in July, but “there’s always hope – keep the pressure on.”

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