Just days before, school officials announced that a projected tax increase had fallen to 35 cents thanks to legislative changes. The increase was initially pegged at 54 cents, but was revised to 41 cents after last year’s actual common level of appraisal figures were factored in.
Article 3 on the municipal warning, which asked voters to raise $110,000 for school user fees, kicked off the emotional discussion. The user fee allows the town to compensate the school for public and municipal use of the school at the municipal tax rate, which isn’t subject to the state’s school funding formula. It reduces the overall tax rate paid by homestead ratepayers.
It was suggested by selectboard members Greg Brown and Robin Kingsley that voters reject Article 3 as a way of sending state officials a message that they were very displeased with Whitingham’s lot under the state’s education funding formula. Several people, including school board member John Doty, argued that defeating the article would send the wrong message to Montpelier. “We don’t want them to think that we are not serious about educating our students, and there are other ways to voice dissatisfaction,” said Doty.
Another voter pointed out that raising the revenue through the school tax would increase the school tax by more than it would reduce the municipal tax. The analogy was made by one voter that “the money will either come out of your right or left pocket – but one will cost you more than the other.”
Selectboard member Karl Twitchell said, “There are 1,100 taxpayers, but only 427 pay the full school tax and that is where the burden for all of this lands. The balance either have no liability or they get a tax rebate where school taxes are concerned. It seems the state never took this into consideration.”
Selectboard member Greg Brown chimed in that the town was going to be uncomfortable no matter what they did.
Betsy McKinley gave a short but impassioned statement about the great quality of the school and its positive impact on the community as well as the students. “The state will care if we sue them,” she said.
This stand was repeated by many other voters and in the end the vote was to pass Article 3 as written and addressing the state would be left to other means. This was done by paper ballot with 103 votes to pass the article and 68 against.
Rep. John Gannon, Rep. Laura Sibilia, and Sen. Becca Balint were on hand to answer questions. The discussion again centered on Act 46 and to a lesser degree on cell and internet communications. Gannon, who is a freshman representative, took some heat for not attending any of the local education meetings that were held in relation to Act 46 in the various towns. He said that he works Monday through Friday, from 7 am and often into the evening, in Montpelier and scheduling so far had not allowed him to get away to come home when meetings were held.
All the legislators expressed a deep desire to act on behalf of the voters in regard to Vermont education laws but all also said that the real burden of the fight is on the towns and that towns should organize and contact all the other legislators to let them know their dissatisfaction and why. “How many other schools are in the same problem?” asked Vanda Warner. “How many are getting screwed like us?”
Legislators said many towns were in the same situation, and a good strategy might be to get as many of them together as possible. They said new legislation was in the works to soften the effects of Act 46 on smaller schools, but the indication was that in the case of Whitingham more would need to be done than what is currently being discussed, and that is the reason that local organization on the issue is needed.
The meeting returned to the warned articles, taking each in quick succession with little discussion and all passing on voice votes. The one exception was a speech by Dwight Williams on Article 5, to authorize $72,1236 to fund the Whitingham Fire Department. He told the voters that last year he had leveled some harsh criticism at the fire department and its budget.
Last fall his house caught fire, and he said the department was on the scene in seven minutes from the call. Although his house had extensive damage, it was not a total loss. Insurance inspectors told Williams another six minutes and the house would have been gone. This year he supported Article 5 with the humility of a man speaking on behalf of his rescuers. The article passed with no changes.
Finally came Article 32 to raise a fund of $100,000 to litigate the town’s interests in opposition of Act 46. Most of the earlier arguments were rehashed with some voters suggesting a delay, but selectboard member Greg Brown forcefully argued that the time to act was now. This was reinforced by Wayne Corse who advocated both litigation and a lobbyist. A voter who was a former lobbyist said, “You can get a good law firm that normally does lobby work and have the best of both.”
Twitchell offered an amendment to the article to include hiring both a lobbyist and lawyer as needed for the $100,000 price tag. The amendment and the article passed.