5th try for Walden on school budget - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

5th try for Walden on school budget

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A trickle of residents stop by Walden's Town Hall to cast their ballots for the school budget.

Supporters hope that the fifth try is a charm.

"I voted for the budget. We have to educate our kids. It's just the way everything is," said Francis Clifford of Walden. "Everybody educated my kids. We got to educate other people's kids."

The $2.7 million school budget was approved by a narrow, four-vote margin back on Town Meeting Day. But in a reconsideration vote later in May, it was shot down by voters. Then $20,000 in cuts later, voters rejected the budget again in June and July. Frustrated school board officials say the latest $2.6 million budget on the ballot cuts to the bone.

"If we were to cut anymore we would not only drastically affect the quality of the children's education, but we would not be able to meet the letter of the law," said Ray Lewis, a member of the Walden School Board.

Lewis says an anti-school budget campaign-- in the form of anonymous postcards to voters-- is spreading incomplete information about the budget by not taking into account factors like increased revenue. He says the 5 percent increase over last year comes after holding the budget steady during the recession and reflects fixed costs like current teacher salaries and special education.

"We're historically at the bottom of the list of how much people spend. And I think people need to come to grips with that and accept that even though things are getting more expensive, we're trying hard to provide a quality education without it costing the voters of Walden too much money," Lewis said.

Residents, even those who attended the school, say they're concerned about what they perceive as ballooning budgets.

"When they're as high as this one was, I think it needs to be voted down just because it is one of the higher ones and this is a small school," said Victoria Harshman of Walden.

Others say they remember the town's old one-room schoolhouse and question staff levels and the need for busses.

With only about half the registered voters coming out for the last two tries, Ray Lewis says it's also a matter of kick-starting civic engagement.

"If they have a question about the budget, they should contact a board member or come to a meeting so that they could learn the truth about what's going on with the budget," Lewis said.

Without a budget, the school has the authority by state law to continue operating at 87 percent of last year's budget.

"It is not an option to go out of the business," said Steve Dale of the Vermont Association of School Boards. "A town can choose to close its public school and tuition its students, but it can't choose not to educate its students and ultimately a school board needs to be given authorization to expend the funds that are necessary to do so."

State education officials say the town is close to entering uncharted waters in state law if voters continue to sink the school budget.

State officials say the only town in recent history to go so close to the budgetary brink was Benson. Back in the early 1990s, the town went a whole year without a new budget.

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