Residents question school tax rate
by Margo Avakian
Mar 01, 2014 | 2288 views | 0 0 comments | 94 94 recommendations | email to a friend | print
HALIFAX- Budgets, taxes, and increasing administrative workloads generated lively debate at Tuesday’s pre-Town Meeting informational session. Pointed questions began immediately, during the meet-the-candidates segment of the evening.

Candidates are running for two school board seats this year. Paul Blais is seeking reelection to his three-year seat, and Kimberly Tefft is running for the remaining year of Shelby Brimmer’s term. Brimmer resigned her seat earlier this year. Tefft, as a newcomer, has no record to be questioned on, but she was asked for her position on the issue of consolidation. Tefft expressed a strong preference for maintaining the town’s school for as long as it is financially feasible to do so.

Blais is also in favor of trying to keep the school running; he praised the education his own children received in Halifax, saying they were very well prepared to succeed at the secondary schools they now attend. Blais also cited measures the board has taken to ease the financial squeeze, including taking in several tuition students from Searsburg and working for, and getting, a legislative change that reduced costs for students getting secondary vocational training.

“How many students are graduating this year?” Rose Alboum asked. “Three,” Blais replied. Alboum wondered how long the town could maintain a school for so few students. “This is a low graduation year, for sure,” Blais said, but added that at this point it would cost more to tuition all the town’s students out.

Howard Alboum asked whether there had been problems with the tuitioned-in students from Searsburg. School board chair Homer “Chum” Sumner told Alboum that 10 Searsburg students had started the year, and six remain, the others having withdrawn due to relocation and other reasons. All the remaining students are doing well. Alboum was critical of the relatively low tuition charged for those students, asking why it is so much less than the average per-pupil costs for Halifax. Sumner explained that the average cost includes monies spent for the town’s 24 secondary students, who must all be educated outside the town. Secondary schools cost more than elementary schools. Sumner noted that aside from about $250 in materials costs, the tuition fees paid to Halifax are pure revenue, as no more is being spent on staffing or plant expenses.

Howard Alboum asked what the elementary per-pupil cost is. Blais, a self-described computer nerd, said that the enormously detailed district budget hasn’t been broken out in just that way. Alboum expressed frustration at the lack of “transparency and information.” Blais and Sumner promised that, while a precisely accurate figure can’t be determined, a close estimate will be given at Town Meeting. Blais reminded the crowd that school board meetings are open to all, and rarely attended by anyone who doesn’t need to be there.

Craig Stone reminded everyone that the board does not set the school tax rate. “Our governor does that, with the help of the Legislature,” Stone said, adding that many of the school’s costs are mandated from above. Sumner agreed, noting that although this year’s proposed school budget is $55,000 lower than last year’s, the projected school tax rate will be higher. “That’s a reduction of about 5%,” he said, “but the tax rate is going up 7%.”

In regard to the issues of mandates and consolidation, Sumner related the saga of the supervisory district’s efforts to replace a superintendent who left, breaking his contract. The state required the district to explore the possibility of consolidating with another supervisory district before hiring a replacement. But, said Sumner, no other district in the area was interested in merging with Windham Southwest. Finally, permission was granted to seek a permanent superintendent.

Selectboard member Lewis Sumner told the crowd that Halifax is sending $260,000 to the state this year, over and above its own costs. “Why?” several people called out. “Because we’re considered to be a rich town.” The Alboums wanted to know why the state considers Halifax to be rich; how is that determined?

“Property values!” came the chorused reply.

“So all we have to do is keep our valuations low?”

“It doesn’t work that way,” Sumner said. He explained that “If your property is listed at $100,000, and the state thinks it is worth $150,000, that’s the value you’ll be taxed on, $150,000.”

Rose Alboum brought up the fact that current appraisals are running well above actual market value. She was told that the listers are required to work with sales records extending back three years, which often results with appraisals out of sync with current markets. There will be a townwide reappraisal this year to correct the discrepancy decried by Alboum.

Moving on to the town portion of the evening, Lewis Sumner, this year’s only candidate for the selectboard, spoke first. Sumner was asked for his opinion on the two articles designed to ease the enormous time and effort burden that now weighs on the board. The articles offer alternative solutions; one would add two members to the board, each serving a one-year term. The other would be to hire a part-time administrative assistant. Sumner said he is not in favor of expanding the board, lest some people who are inclined to “carry on” might make the problem worse. He does favor hiring a part-time assistant, saying the move has worked well for other towns.

Mitch Green said he thought an expanded board would slow everything down,”with five people researching and hashing out every issue.” Green also insisted that two members of the three-person board can discuss town business outside of a public meeting “as long as they don’t discuss their opinion” of an issue. Several people assured him that this is not legally the case. Green was unpersuaded. More usefully, Green pointed out an error in the proposed budget; the municipal total of the selectboard budget should be $34,146 less than shown. A selectboard member will offer an amendment at Town Meeting to correct the error.

Following a fairly brief rehash of the ongoing project to replace the Old County Road North bridge and the reasons it will cost much more than expected, the evening ended with somber speculations of how the town, with its declining grand list and ever-increasing expenses, will be able to continue. No one had an answer to that question.
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