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St. Johnsbury School Board Seeks Support For Budget Revote

Charlotte Albright
St. Johnsbury School Superintendent Ranny Bledsoe answers questions at a meeting to discuss how to revise the budget that voters rejected on Town Meeting Day.

St. Johnsbury is one of 35 towns that saw its school budget voted down by voters on Town Meeting Day. But unlike many towns, it’s seeing its class sizes increase, and that’s adding costs. After the vote, the School Board held a public meeting where residents got to sound off about how to create a budget they will support.

What they will not support, apparently, is a budget that would have raised property taxes by about 11 percent. But 3.4 percent of that increase is out of the town’s control—it’s due to a statewide property tax hike. The district’s hands are tied in other ways too. Because St. Johnsbury has no high school, it must send an increasing number of secondary students to private schools, where tuition is rising. Those high school costs account for 60 percent of the total budget increase.  So that prompted a question from St. Johnsbury resident Wesley Robertson.

“Where is there any fat to cut off of this budget already?” Robertson wondered.

The answer from the Board—it’s already bare bones.

School officials say the only place to aim the knife is at the K-8 school, which has seen class sizes increase as spending has remained flat for the past five years. That, says Superintendent Ranny Bledsoe, has created some serious problems.

“What we see is a real behavior spike in the early grades, that I’ve been told by a lot of educators is unusual, and it is because we have a lot of children come in who really are not socialized for school and they need additional supports,” Bledsoe said.

Bledsoe’s budget calls for three new teachers, increasing spending by almost 4 percent. She says that spending is long overdue, because teachers are now buying supplies out of their own pockets, and trying to manage unwieldy classes of as many as 23 kindergartners. St. Johnsbury resident Bob Swartz praised the school for making improvements mandated by the No Child Left Behind Law, bringing test scores up.

“The value of the St. Johnsbury School working, so that by eighth grade the students here were equal to those who had begun way above in terms of testing further around the state. I don’t think enough taxpayers saw that or saw that in print,” Swartz said.

Other school supporters noted that academic progress has been made despite the fact that per pupil funding for the K-8 programs is 25 percent below the state average. With additional staff, Superintendent Bledsoe promised that  test scores should rise earlier, so that it won’t take eight years to bring St. Johnsbury’s students up to par with their peers in other towns. 

But there was at least one critic in the audience. Trudy Baker questioned the decision to raise salaries.

“You mentioned the teachers, paras and administrators earn about 10 per cent less than the state average, and I would venture a guess that this is the same for all workers in this area of Vermont. I am sure other professionals are making less,” Baker said.

The school board acknowledged that local taxpayers are feeling pinched, though they noted that many will get property tax relief based on their income. Still, they promised to revise the budget to make it more palatable.

Only 14 percent of the school’s parents voted on the budget, so the board hopes to rally their support when a revote is held next month.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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