Voters wasted no time approving the school board’s proposed $349,084 school budget. The budget is about $51,000 lower than the current budget. The town’s per-pupil expenditure of $13,592 is 5.1% lower than the current year. For Searsburg property owners, the drop in per-pupil spending, coupled with a rise in the common level of appraisal (CLA) means a 16-cent reduction in their homestead school tax rate.
Most of the school meeting was dominated by discussion of Act 46, and how the town will comply with the consolidation law without losing their school choice. Windham Southwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Chris Pratt commended Searsburg School Board members for their extensive research on several options. “They tried looking at other partners like Stratton, and another board up north. All of the other options would mean having to give up all or some of Searsburg’s school choice. Now we’re trying to see if the state will allow Searsburg to be part of WSSU’s side-by-side model without having to give up choice.”
School board chair Jaqueline Murano said the board analyzed the financial implications of each option, as well as the impact on choice. “We wanted to make sure it was the best way for us to operate.
Pratt said a similar configuration was approved by the state for the Ira School District. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed.”
Voters blazed through the municipal warning, raising $98,120 in taxes for the town’s $117,920 highway department budget, and another $96,435 in taxes for the $130,535 general fund. The only article that came under question was a $250 charitable contribution for the Visiting Nurses Association and Hospice. “That’s all they want?” asked Gerry DeGray. The article passed unanimously.
Under “other business” DeGray and Toby Munsill urged the board to have a plan for using payments related to Avangrid’s wind turbine project. The payments, negotiated between the developer and the town, are set to begin when the project is online. “They’re supposed to finish in December of this year, and we’ll receive our first check next January,” DeGray said. “Will that be used to reduce our tax bill?”
Selectboard chair Tony Kilbride said the money would go to the town’s general fund, and voters would decide how to spend it. He said any surplus funds at the end of the year would be used to reduce the amount of money to be raised in taxes.
Munsill noted that the payments, which could be as much as $240,000 per year, may be in excess of the town’s expenses. He asked board members to consider a plan to set aside the excess for future needs. “Looking down the road, if you were able to invest it, $20,000 every year, maybe you could use it at some point to reduce the school tax.”
Rep. Laura Sibilia and Bennington County Sen. Brian Campion met with voters to talk about local and statewide issues. Selectboard member Mike Johnson asked whether there was a way to stop a planned project to carve rumble strips in the center of Route 9 through the town. “We’ve already got a ton of noise from Route 9, and that’s going to add a lot more. I don’t know why it’s needed.”
Munsill said the centerline rumble strips caused the roadway to deteriorate faster, and created a hazard, particularly to motorcyclists. “You’ve driven east,” he said. “The road needs work because the center of the road has deteriorated so bad from the rumble strips that it’s a hazard. I don’t think it makes it any safer.”
Johnson agreed. “This road has been beautiful since it was rebuilt. If you put in those rumble strips, it will ruin this road and you’ll have to replace it in a few years.” Campion said he’d look into the matter.
Sibilia said she and Campion had been working on winter maintenance issues on Route 9 through Searsburg. “One of the things I’ve learned is that nobody keeps track of major road shutdowns,” she said. “So that’s something we’re looking into doing.”
Sibilia said things were moving slower at the Legislature this year, mainly because of turnover in the top spots. “There’s been a big change in leadership, so things feel slower. We’re still finding our way.”
Sibilia said she has been assigned to the new Energy and Technology Committee. She asked Searsburg residents about cell coverage in the town. Most said it was “spotty,” dropping out in some key locations. “This hill is not covered with cell service,” said Sandy Gaszek.