After re-electing Gary Sage as school moderator, and re-electing Tammy Hollister for another three years on the school board, voters got down to business. Article 3 asked voters to approve a school budget of $333,428. But voters expressed concern that the amount was too high for the town’s 18 students – a total of about $18,500 per student. But school board chair Tammy Hollister pointed out that the figure included special education, the town’s contribution to Windham Southwest Supervisory Union’s budget, and expenses that aren’t directly related to tuition.
Lisa Munsill asked if the board could include the latest schoolwide scores on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests in the school district annual report. “We’re not doing so hot, our public schools,” Munsill said.
Toby Munsill pointed out that tuition at Twin Valley Middle School rose by $1,900, from $11,600 to $13,500. “That’s a 20% increase,” he said. “What’s the rate of inflation?”
Hollister said the school board recently negotiated a lower figure with the Twin Valley School Board, about $12,550. But Sage agreed that tuition was still too much for Searsburg taxpayers. “The board and I went into sticker shock at how much tuition has been raised,” he said.
Sage suggested that Wilmington and Twin Valley raised tuition rates to avoid landing in the Act 68 “penalty box,” but he said there may be another option for Searsburg. In informal discussions with the Readsboro School Board, they offered Searsburg a tuition rate of $6,500. “We’re going to be looking at doing a contract with them,” Sage said. “If we do that, our kids will have to go to Readsboro through eighth grade.”
Although the board didn’t offer any NECAP information for Readsboro School, Sage noted that the school has a reputation for educational excellence. “Readsboro has come a long way,” Sage said. “They have a good education system, a nice school, and small classes.”
Sage said it was his opinion that Searsburg should “settle down and send kids to one school,” but he said the board wouldn’t make the decision on their own. Sometime this month, he said, board members would meet with Readsboro School officials to discuss the matter. “Once we have all the information, we’ll send out a letter for a special meeting to see what the town wants to do.”
In the municipal Town Meeting, Article 6 dominated much of the evening’s discussion. The article asked voters to approve a split tax payment, with one installment due on August 1, and another due on February 1. Currently, said selectboard member Sandy Gaszek, the second installment is due in November. “The payments come so close together,” Gaszek said. “A lot of towns collect in February, and you skip the holiday period when it’s harder to come up with the money.”
“Well that’s not very goddamn good, it takes me a year to get my taxes out,” said Pete Janovsky.
Selectboard chair Walt Kenney said it provided taxpayers, particularly those with seasonal jobs, with a “comfort zone,” making it easier to save throughout the year. “This will give you a longer period of time,” he said. But a number of voters were concerned that, because the town was collecting its second payment so close to the end of the fiscal year, it might not have all the money needed to operate between the two payments.
Some residents pointed out that the change would affect when taxes would be considered delinquent, and it could limit the financial information available to the selectboard during the time they’re developing their budget. Gaszek confirmed that taxes wouldn’t be considered delinquent until March 2, 30 days after the February 1 due date.
Handing his gavel over to Kenney and stepping out of his role as moderator, Sage said he thought the board was “taking an awful chance.”
But Tina Reynolds pointed out that, even under the current payment schedule, the delinquent tax list didn’t reflect what’s actually delinquent; some of the people on the list may have already paid their taxes.
Gerry DeGray urged voters to “give it a chance and see if it reduces delinquencies,” but selectboard member Tella Penson amended the motion to collect taxes on August 1 and November 1. Gaszek agreed that the proposal may take more consideration. Voters passed the amended article.
In other matters, voters passed a summer road budget of $45,000, and a winter road budget of $65,000. Voters agreed to raise and appropriate $288,125, $60,000 of which will go to cover a deficit in the 2008 budget. The 2010 fiscal budget is pegged at $267,225, of which $39,100 will be covered by anticipated revenues. Forty-one of the town’s 74 registered voters came out to the polls to cast ballots on Tuesday, electing Gary Sage Town Moderator with 19 votes, Sandy Gaszek selectboard member for three years with 22 votes, Tella Penson selectboard member for two years with 27 votes, Tony Kilbride selectboard member for one year with 17 votes, Michael Johnson lister for three years with 34 votes, Jeanette Lee auditor for three years with 31 votes, Derick Lind tax collector for one year with 25 votes, Chris Reynolds town agent with 12 votes, Rosemarie Blair grand juror with 30 votes, and Tony Kilbride constable with 15 votes.