Sunderland passes budgets

SUNDERLAND - Voters endorsed a school budget of nearly $2.4 million, and waved through a municipal budget and highway fund budget by wide margins in Australian ballot voting Tuesday during Town Meeting.

The school district's budget passed by a 99-24 margin. The town's General Fund budget sailed through 104-18, and the highway budget was approved, 108-14.

Voters also approved the increase in Burr and Burton's tuition to $15,400 from $14,875 by a 99-24 margin.

Sunderland School Board Chairman Gordon Woodrow said he was pleased by the strong support voters gave, but cautioned that school boards had work to do.

"I'm very happy," he said during a phone interview Tuesday night after the votes were counted. "Statewide, we need to be thinking about how we're going to transform education so that students here have the right opportunities at the right price."

Sunderland's school budget increased about 8 percent from last year's total of $2. 209 million. The school property tax rate is projected to rise by 7 cents, from almost 1.19 to almost $1.26.

"People are going to have to start looking at the bigger picture," Woodrow said. "There are many small schools that are struggling and it will become more difficult to provide services." During Sunderland's school district's floor meeting Monday night, Town Clerk Rose Keough was successful in garnering support for a petitioned article which tied her compensation for her work as school district treasurer to 1 percent of the collected school taxes.

This change was opposed by the school board, but by a show of hands, voters gave their approval by a 30-22 margin.

The school board opposed the measure for a couple of reasons, Woodrow stated in an email received by The Journal. Currently, Keough is paid a $12,500 stipend, which is substantially higher than what other school district treasurers in towns served by the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union, of which Sunderland is a part. The next highest district pays their treasurer $1,200, and several school district pay nothing. Additionally, the BRSU administrative staff is already providing most of the financial recordkeeping and treasurer services, which the school district contracts and pays for, he wrote.

By passing the article to pay Keough 1 percent of school tax revenue, the board will be faced with a $5,500 deficit when the new fiscal year begins, since the school directors budgeted for Keough's stipend at the same level as before - $12,500, he stated.

At the municipal floor meeting, voters also gave support to a proposal to spend $3,000 for a pedestrian and bicycle feasibility study. The money is the town's portion needed to apply for a state grant of $30,000 to explore the viability of constructing a path for pedestrians and bicyclists along Sunderland Hill Road, said Marie Lewinsky, a member of the committee of townspeople which has been working on the proposal.

Approving the $3,000 for the study does not ensure they will obtain the grant and the additional $27,000 in state money, Lewinsky told the approximately 50 townspeople who attended the floor meeting, but will get them into the process for final approval.

This item generated a fair amount of debate back and forth before it was approved.

In other business, voters at Monday's floor meeting also gave a thumbs up to a proposal to shift $34,000 from the town's paving reserve fund, originally slated for a $50,000 appropriation, and transfer that to the municipal office building reserve fund. That would boost the municipal building fund to $44,000, enough to finance a contract for $548,000 the select board had earlier awarded to Russell Construction Corp.

In two earlier rounds of bidding, the select board had been unable to find an acceptable contractor willing to bid at or below the town's budget of $511,000 for the construction of the proposed new town office building.

A third round, conducted Friday, Feb. 28, finally produced a winning bid from the Russell Corp. Construction is anticipated to begin in the Spring.

After a short discussion, the transfer of $34,000 from the paving fund to the municipal office fund was approved on a voice vote.

The idea behind the transfer was to neutralize the financial and tax impact on voters, said Mark Hyde, the chairman of the town's select board. The select board has already scaled back the scope of the building and some of its features to reduce costs, but with the construction industry able to charge more for building projects, there are no savings to be obtained by further delay, he said.

"There's really nothing more that we can cut without ending up with a building that no longer looks the same way we (originally) suggested . . . . or has the functionality we suggested," he said.

There were no contested races for select board or school board races.

Incumbent select board members James Ennis, Steven Bendix and David Kiernan all won reelection, as did incumbent school board directors, Leslie Perra and Melanie Virgilio. Newcomer Dineen Squillante, running unopposed, won election.


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