South Burlington will soon decide if third time’s the charm for the Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposal.

The latest proposal cuts more than $1 million from its predecessor, denied by 2,924-1,613 votes on May 28.

Now, the school district is asking for a 1.52% spending increase over Fiscal Year 2020. The proposal would mean a 1.91% tax rate increase.

The owner of a $336,110 home – the city’s average – could anticipate paying about $103 more on their annual taxes than in FY20. For the owner of a $231,358 condo that figure would be about $71 dollars more than last year.

The budget vote will occur on Aug. 11, in conjunction with the state primary election.

The latest proposal follows working sessions with the Citizens’ Community Budget Advisory Committee – a volunteer group assembled by the district to include community members’ perspectives in the budgeting process.

The group provided good ideas, many of which the district was able to take into consideration, Superintendent David Young said, but there were some things that were non-negotiable, like services the district is legally obligated to offer.

The most recent cuts included eliminating two newly created teaching positions for fiscal year 2021, one at Rick Marcotte Central School and the other at Chamberlin Elementary School. Also cut in the proposal are three full-time equivalent Literacy and Math Coaches – one from each of the elementary schools – and a 0.8 full-time equivalent of core teacher sections, eliminating some Advanced Placement course offerings for the 2020-21 school year.

During the meeting board members weighed the proposed cuts against the academic experience.

“Are we cutting opportunities for kids to try to appease a group of voters who insist on making the budget vote a referendum on the status of negotiations?” Bridget Burkhardt, board clerk, asked before voting to approve the budget. “If that is the case, we are damaging our school system to try to get yes votes that will not be coming because we will not have a settled contract by the time this vote happens.”

Fitzgerald was concerned the proposed reductions could cost more in the long run.

“We are diminishing the system with these reductions, I would agree with that,” she said.

Young said, “The decision-making is first and foremost around trying to preserve programming. This is going to be a hard year, it’s a year that we hope to be able to rebound from and bring back critical programming that we think is essential.”

Community voices

The school budget vote has been a contentious subject in South Burlington, since an original budget proposal this winter that would have accounted for an 11.22% tax rate increase coupled with a $209.6 million bond proposal to fund a new middle/high school and athletic center.

At that time, a political action committee known as “Citizens for an Affordable South Burlington, Inc.” formed to contest the proposal. Social media pages have been flooded with calls both for and against subsequent budget proposals.

John Stern, a founder of “Citizens for an Affordable South Burlington” has been a vocal opponent of past proposals.

But as of July 16, Stern said he hadn’t yet decided how he’d be voting on the third ask.

“I want to vote yes, because obviously a lot of people are very angry, and it creates a lot of tension. But at the same time, part of me wants to vote no, because I don’t think we need to vote yes. Even if we don’t vote yes, you get to a level set around $52 million, that’s a really good budget,” he said.

Stern has heard opponents of past budgets say they are okay with the new number but have concerns about the items that were cut to reach it.

He has also heard from former “no” voters who will likely cast a “yes” vote this time around. Others, he said, think any budget increase is unacceptable given current circumstances.

Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee volunteer Joe Patrissi said a “major sticking point” in the budget process was money reserved for union negotiations.

“It was clear to some of us that there needs to be structural change in the future re the timing of bargaining,” Patrissi wrote in an email interview. “To ask the voters to vote on a budget that hasn’t resolved salary amounts before the vote is not acceptable or logical.”

Patrissi said that several group members offered suggestions that were not accepted.

“What was missing for me is a voice on the board that could advocate for the community members that don’t have the money to pay even the amount they paid last year let alone any increase,” Patrissi said.

City Councilor Meaghan Emery served on the advisory group and said she is in favor of the current proposal, believing it recognizes community needs while keeping the South Burlington school experience high quality.

But she said the proposed budget contains sacrifices, like fewer Advanced Placement classes, business electives and clubs. And while it keeps class sizes manageable, Emery said that would be at risk if this proposal failed and the district pursued a level budget.

“We have to protect our most important assets during this time. What happens in and to this community has an impact on my well-being and on the future lives that we’ll have here. I think that the schools are an integral part of that picture just as much as maintaining peace,” she said.

Emery is hopeful the community can come together again following divisive conversations about the budget on social media.

“The level of acrimony is not positive for our community. I think we should be able to face challenges in a much more constructive, much more thoughtful exchange. I really hope that as a community we can come around to the table, sincerely, with give and take,” she said.

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