SWANTON — Voters, by 58 votes, have once again rejected a proposed budget for Missisquoi Valley Union High School (MVU), forcing four area schools to borrow operating funds.

Residents of Highgate, Franklin and Swanton said ‘no’ on Tuesday to a proposed $15.4 million budget, 532-474.

“I don’t think the community thinks MVU is a bad school. … It comes down to affordability,” said Earl Fournier, chair of the MVU finance committee.

This is the third MVU budget rejected by voters. MVU will now be forced to start the school year, which begins on July 1, without a budget. Absent a budget, the school will be able to borrow up to 87 percent of its current budget, a provision provided under state statute.

Swanton Schools, Highgate Elementary School, and Franklin Elementary School also will be forced to borrow funds to operate their schools.

The tax rate is based on the cost of running both the elementary schools and the union high school, and cannot be set without a budget for both, explained Becky Hart, business manager for Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union.

Without an MVU budget the education tax rate in all three communities cannot be set. Instead, residents will be sent a tax bill with an education tax rate of $0.98 per $1,000, the state base rate. The towns will collect the money, but it will not be distributed to the schools, explained Hart.

Once MVU has a budget, revised tax bills with the final tax rate can be established and mailed.

Fournier was disappointed. “I thought we had a reasonable chance,” he said today. “I knew it would be close.”

Efforts to reach school board chair Denis Boucher this morning were unsuccessful.

Fournier said he understood that taxes are a concern. “People voted what they thought they could do,” he said. “Taxes went up a fair amount last year.”

Even with a reduction of $200,000 from the budget voters rejected on Town Meeting Day in March, the proposed budget had increased two percent from the current year and required a tax rate increase in Swanton and Highgate. Franklin, which had a property reappraisal this year, was seeing a lower tax rate, but that rate was to be billed on properties with a higher assessed value.

The board has already made cuts in the budget. “There isn’t a lot of room left,” said Fournier. “It’s going to take some creativity on the part of the administration and the board to get this done.”

The challenge will be coming up with a budget residents can afford that will also meet the needs of students, suggested Fournier.

Asked what he hears from the community, Fournier said people often comment MVU has had a reduction in students, but not staff. Cutting staff is “not as easy as it sounds,” said Fournier. Reductions in student numbers are spread across grade levels and academic programs, making it difficult to eliminate an entire position.

Declining numbers of students contributed to increases in tax rates, which take into account spending per pupil, according to Fournier. He also pointed to the increase in the state’s base education rate and the requirement that local schools contribute more to the teachers’ retirement fund.

Although voter turnout was just 15.3 percent of registered voters in the three communities, the board had reached out extensively to the community. Just more than 16 percent of registered voters voted in Franklin and Swanton, while turnout in Highgate was 13.2 percent.

“Obviously, I’d like to see more people vote,” said Fournier. “I think the people that voted knew what they were voting about.”

MVU’s initial budget proposal included funding for a new football team and a digital entrance sign. Those items were eliminated from the budget, along with a second handicapped bus and a paraeducator position. In total, the board cut $200,000 from its initial proposal, but retained funding for two new technology positions and a new assistant principal.

The work of the assistant principal, Christie Martin, has been key to MVU’s school improvement efforts, according to the board. She has been in charge of working with teachers to improve their teaching, using data to determine where students are succeeding and where improvements are needed. Martin’s position was elevated to assistant principal on the recommendation or previous principal Bob Pequinot.

The technology positions are needed to help MVU catch up in the area of technology, according to Fournier, particularly since statewide student assessments taken by 7th, 8th and 11th grade students at MVU will be given on computers starting next year.

The regularly scheduled meeting of the MVU board is Thursday at 7 p.m. in the school library.