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December 18, 2013

School Budget Gets Nod in Walden — At Last

By Kristen Fountain

 Five turned out to be the magic number for students and educators in Walden.

After more than nine months of wrangling, voters in the small Caledonia County town finally passed a school budget after a fifth ballot vote on Tuesday, 176-131. The district was the first statewide in 20 years to operate this long without an approved budget.

“This is all I wanted for Christmas,” school board member Ray Lewis said. “I am very happy.”

The vote in favor of the $2.58 million budget showed a significant change in attitude from mid-October when a $2.62 million budget went down to a 200-149 defeat. (The original $2.75 million budget was approved by four votes at the district’s annual meeting in March, but fell hard to a rescission vote, 197-66, in May.)

Lewis attributes the win to several factors.

For one, since the fall, the board and staff at the Caledonia Central Supervisory District had their budget vetted by experts at the Vermont Agency of Education and other experienced district staff in other parts of the state.

“I think that people finally realized that we really had done all we could at this time and the only thing that was happening now was prolonging it and costing the town more money,” Lewis said. In total, the five additional votes cost the town approximately $6,000.

Also, some residents gained a better understanding of the statewide tax formula, which takes “net education spending” — overall spending minus revenue — as the key number, rather than the overall budget total.

The board was only able to shave $170,000 off the original budget, done in part by cutting staff: the librarian, the world language teacher and a paraeducator. But education spending dropped by $250,000. That change cut the increase in the tax rate from more than 33 cents per every $100 in property value to a more palatable 12 cents.

And likely voter weariness had set in, Lewis said. Roughly 40 fewer people turned out to cast their vote on a bitterly cold day.

With this year’s budget now approved, the three-person board will be taking a few weeks off.

Board members are scheduled to take up the final version of next year’s budget at a meeting on Jan. 7. They are also planning a community-wide meeting on the future of the district, which supports a pre-K through 8th grade school and provides school choice for high school. A long-range planning committee has also started to meet.

Lewis hopes that if dissatified taxpayers across the state have been looking to Walden as an example, that they will also see the cost of the long process to school and the community as a whole.

“The reality is what has happened in Walden is that we saved a little bit of money, but we also spent money and wasted a lot of time,” he said.

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