. By Jason Starr The Colchester Sun
“This just makes stronger the hard work we have to do in the negotiations.”
Colchester School Board
The Colchester School Board was mid-meeting when news of the voter defeat of its $36 million budget proposal broke Tuesday night after the Town Meeting Day election, so board members had an immediate chance to publicly discuss their reaction and next steps with Superintendent Larry Waters.
They are starting with a $472,000 reduction that would reduce the proposed increase over the current fiscal year from 4.3 percent to 3 percent. A revote is tentatively scheduled for the first week in May, when voters will also consider a new town budget proposal. The town’s $11.8 million proposal was also defeated Tuesday.
The school district budget was defeated by a 570-vote margin (1,757 to 1,187). The town budget was defeated by 166 votes (1,518 to 1,352). Also Tuesday, Jeff Bartley defeated incumbent Renn Niquette for a two-year seat on the Colchester Selectboard (1,408 to 1,280). Turnout was roughly 27 percent.
School board member Lincoln White said the salary increases embedded in the school’s proposal were the primary sticking point for residents he talked to leading up to Tuesday’s vote. The overall salary increase is listed in the district’s proposal at 4.34 percent, including a nearly 10 percent increase in stipends, 8 percent increase in support staff wages, 3.4 percent increase in teacher salaries, and 3.2 percent increase in administrator salaries.
“It’s these line items that people think are out of whack with what they are experiencing at home and in their businesses,” White said. “Whatever we do, we have to show we’re trimming there or we have a good explanation for these numbers.”
White is the lead negotiator for the board as it works toward a new employment contract with the Colchester teachers union. The contract would succeed the current three-year deal due to expire in June. The salaries negotiated into the new contract will be part of the budget currently under consideration.
“This (defeat) just makes stronger the hard work we have to do in the negotiations,” White said.
Board members expect some of the reduction to the proposed tax rate increase of 8.6 percent to come from a reduction in the increase in the state’s base tax rate, which figures heavily into the local tax increase. State lawmakers are likely to have set the rate by the time the board presents a new budget in May.
“That would have an impact,” Waters said.
Tom Bacon, a parent and co-founder of the Support our Schools advocacy group, noted that turnout for Tuesday’s election was the highest in nine years, excluding the 2008 presidential election. The group has been working to increase voter turnout among members of the school community — parents, alumni and parents of alumni.
“We have to sway some of the voters, and still acquire new voters to really build that base (of support),” he said.
Bartely’s win moves him from the Development Review Board to the selectboard and pushes out Niquette, who is finishing up her first two-year term on the board. A former state legislator representing Colchester, Niquette previously served on the school board for nine years.
“Renn has served this community for a long time,” Town Manager Dawn Francis said. “We will miss her knowledge of the community and expertise.”
Francis has met with Bartley.
“I’m excited to work with him,” she said. “I think he will bring some good, fresh ideas to the board.”
Francis plans to meet with department heads and town staff, as well as solicit public input, about ways to reduce the proposed budget. The proposal defeated Tuesday carried an increase of 4.3 over the current year, causing an estimated tax rate increase of 3 percent.
“We’re all going to take a positive outlook and try to come up with a solution that doesn’t cut the services people want but at the same time work on trying to minimize that tax burden,” said Francis.
It wasn’t all negative Tuesday. Voters approved a $36,000 increase in contributions to the Visiting Nurse Association and a change to a capital equipment plan to cover not just town vehicles, but also town buildings.