By Katy Savage
After two failed attempts, voters approved the Slate Valley Union Unified School District budget by just 16 votes: 1324-1308 on Aug. 11.
The $26.4 million operating budget is down about $91,000 from the previous year while the
$16,394 per equalized pupil spending is up 1.99% and the equalized tax rate of $1.45 per $100 of assessed property value is up 3 cents. The owner of a $200,000 property will pay about $60 more in taxes.
The third budget was presented after the original $26.6 million budget failed by 95 votes in March. The same budget number was presented to voters again in June, but failed by 262 votes.
Board members have since made small adjustments to staffing, cutting a special education instructor and a science/technology instructor from the high school — two positions that are currently vacant.
Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell said she was pleased the budget passed but more work needed to be done.
“Being that it only passed by 16 votes, that indicates to me we have a lot of work to do as a district with regards to next year’s budget,” she said.
Olsen-Farrell said the rising costs of education discouraged some voters.
Earlier this year, voters soundly defeated a $59.5 million bond which would have paid for extensive renovations to Fair Haven Union High School, as well as a new middle school, an 8,200-square-foot addition to the Orwell school, and a new, $842,066 elevator at Fair Haven Grade School, among other improvements. The bond was defeated 2489-719 in March.
There are no plans to present the bond to voters again.
“We’ve heard from the voters that they want to see additional savings in the district,” Olsen-Farrell said, explaining the board may close schools in the future. “That’s something we will be working toward. It’s complicated in our current configuration.”
The school district merged in 2017. At the time, voters approved an article that prevents the school board from closing any building until 2023, unless voters consider an amendment.
School board chair Tim Smith echoed the desire to find savings in the future.
“We’re really going to have to sharpen our pencils and make some more cuts,” he said.
Both Olsen-Farrell and Smith said uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 and the impact it has on schools reopening could have swayed the vote as well.
“I think naturally people are a little wary of spending $26 million on a school budget or really any budget,” Smith said. “A lot of our demographic that voted on the school budget are an older demographic. They’re retired. They have legitimate concerns about the costs of living in this state and continued increase in property taxes.”
So far the district has spent $100,000 in unexpected Covid-19-related costs, including converting school nurse offices into isolation rooms and purchasing new desks to replace tables in the classrooms.
Olsen-Farrell said some of the pandemic expenses will be offset by grants.