RICHFORD – Voters in the Enosburgh – Richford Unified Union School District (ERUUSD) will be asked to approve a $17.7 million budget this Wednesday alongside a handful of amendments to the district’s articles of agreement expanding its school board and extending protections against school closure.

ERUUSD’s warned budget of $17.7 million funds elementary and high schools in both towns as well as the Cold Hollow Technical Center in Enosburgh, and results in a per pupil spending rate of $13,985 per equalized pupil.

When applied to the both towns’ respective common levels of appraisal – the ratio comparing a town’s listed property values against their actual market values – ERUUSD’s budget results in a higher tax rate in Richford and lower tax rate in Enosburgh.

In Enosburgh, ERUUSD’s budget dropped the tax rate from $1.2859 in the 2018-2019 fiscal year to $1.2490 for this coming school year, while Richford’s tax rate grew from the 2018-2019 fiscal year’s $1.1476 to $1.1931 for the 2019-2020 school year.

Overall, ERUUSD’s proposed budget increased by $513,296 from the individual budgets approved by both forming districts last year.

From those increased expenses, some were unavoidable, with salary increases matching statewide trends and health care costs continuing to rise.

The district hired a new principal for the Richford Elementary School, a position previously held by Richford Jr./Sr. High School Principal Beth O’Brien.

O’Brien, who had served as the principal in both schools, will now serve exclusively as the high school’s principal.

The district moved previously grant-funded teacher positions in Enosburgh into the general fund in order to accommodate anticipated changes in how the federal government weighs poverty for Title I funding.

According to Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union (FNESU) business manager Morgan Daybell, ERUUSD’s new school board had too narrow of a window to look in depth at the possible efficiencies promised by the Act 46 merger process.

A late hiring did allow for the district’s to condense the positions of two part-time art teachers into a single, expanded art teacher’s position shared between Richford Jr./Sr. High School and the Enosburg Falls Middle and High School.

“That’s an example of what I think we can do going forward,” Daybell said. “We’ve been able to reduce that total… in a way that both principals feel won’t negatively impact the programming.”

Per Daybell, the school board will likely explore those kinds of financial efficiencies as it drafts a budget for the next school year.

“The hope is that we’re going to be able to do that between the two elementary schools and the two high schools,” Daybell said. “We really didn’t have any time to do that before the budget was formed.

“It’s something we can do more intentionally next year.”

Otherwise, according to Daybell, new standardized bookkeeping requirements set by the state require changes in the way FNESU has historically presented budgets, meaning expenses traditionally noted under one item line will have to be moved to others.

There’s also a zeroing-out of tuition paid by Richford for students attending Enosburgh’s Cold Hollow Career Center, as well as the loss of a half-time adult education coordinator’s position the district has historically struggled to fill.

Changes between last year’s budgets and this year’s unified budget amounted to a 3 percent increase in expenses, below the state’s average budget increases.

Should voters defeat the budget on Wednesday, Daybell said the district’s been granted authority to borrow needed funding under state statute until voters do pass a budget.

Still, subsequent budgets would likely be reduced, and, according to Daybell, ERUUSD is already contractually obligated to paying staff, meaning the district would have few options as far as trimming its budget.

Approving a budget on June 26 would mean ERUUSD would be ready to become operational on the deadline of July 1, 2019.

Attempts to delay that deadline, set by the state’s merger law Act 46, have fallen flat, with the legislature failing to pass a delay before the end of its latest legislative session and with attempts to challenge Act 46 in court ending in the state’s favor.

Plaintiffs in the largest of those challenges, a statewide class action lawsuit featuring Richford’s individual school district, are planning on appealing their case to the Vermont Supreme Court, VTDigger reported last week.

“We have worked hard to present a fiscally responsible budget that supports educational opportunity and success,” wrote ERUUSD school board chair Polly Rico and FNESU superintendent Lynn Cota in a mutual letter accompanying the district’s budget packet.

The Richford Jr./Sr. High School, picture here, is one of several schools making up the recently merged ERUUSD. (MICHAEL FRETT, Messenger Staff)

Article amendments

ERUUSD’s board also warned votes on three separate amendments to the district’s articles of agreement, the document governing the rules and structure of the newly-merged district.

Arguably the most significant of those amendments extends protections against school closure for the new district, establishing that it would take a two-thirds vote on the part of the school board as well as an affirmative vote from the school’s respective town in order for a school closure to be legal.

By requiring a two-thirds vote from ERUUSD’s four-person board, any vote to close a town’s school would require the support of at least one member from that respective town.

Another amendment would expand ERUUSD’s school board from four members to six, with three members from each town.

Those positions would be staggered so that one representative from each town has a seat expire in time for a Town Meeting Day vote.

In order for the school board to have equal representation from Enosburgh and Richford, federal law requires that board members be elected from the district as a whole, meaning Enosburgh voters will also vote for Richford representatives and vice versa.

If voters approve expanding the school board, elections for those two vacant seats would be held on a later date.

A third amendment would simply clarify in the articles of agreement that ERUUSD will operate schools for students from prekindergarten through twelfth grade.

According to the supervisory union, the clarifying amendment and the amendment extending protections against school closure would require approval in both towns individually, while the amendment expanding ERUUSD’s school board would require approval from the district as a whole.

Polls open in Enosburgh and Richford at 10 a.m. Wednesday morning and close 7 p.m. that night.

Enosburgh voters will vote at the Enosburgh Town Office, while Richford voters vote at the Richford Town Hall.

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