CHESTER — It took only about 45 minutes for about 70 faithful residents to approve an $11 million school budget for next year during the town's annual school district meeting Wednesday night, March 19.
The budget for the 2008-2009 school year is $11,052,777, up from last year's $10,527,464, or about a 5 percent increase and the numbers were approved with little discussion.
In addition, voters approved warrant articles including a $25,000 appropriation to be placed in the Schools Building Maintenance Fund, and another $25,000 to establish a new capital reserve fund to educate "educationally disabled children."
Another article approved by voters gave increases in salary and benefits to Chester's paraprofessional staff. With the budget approval, the school tax rate increases from $12.27 to $13.09, with a tax impact equal to 82 cents per $1,000 of property valuation, or $246 per year for a $300,000 home. The paraprofessional contract approval adds another 4 cents per $1,000 to the tax impact.
Budget Committee Chairwoman Rhonda Lamphere said the process between the school board and budget committee was a productive one, and most of the increases in next year's budget are due to Pinkerton Academy tuition increases and a rise in the number of students attending the high school from Chester.
In November, Pinkerton announced a 4.67 percent increase in next year's regular education tuition rate, from $8,533 to $8,932 per student. "The Pinkerton upward increase is beyond the school board's control," Lamphere said. "It was a good job on Chester Academy's side to keep their budget under control."
Board member Matt Stover agreed and said the budget process was productive. "We've been very tight and had some savings on the administrative side," he said. With hardly any discussion from the floor, the budget and other articles passed swiftly.
Another article, for informational purposes only, asked voters to consider changing the voting procedure to the Senate Bill 2 method of voting. This issue will be officially voted on at the polls in May.
Chester Superintendent Dr. Victor Petzy said he hoped voters would consider this article — a citizen-petitioned article — and make informed decisions in May when they go to vote. He said a public hearing on the issue is planned for sometime in April to discuss SB2 and what it would mean if Chester decided to switch to that voting format, where ballot voting would take place on all issues in the district instead of the traditional annual meeting. "It would need a three-fifths majority to pass," Petzy said, "and voting would be preceded by a deliberative session."
Resident Dave Clark, who initiated the SB2 petitioned article, said he hoped people would do their research and learn as much about this voting procedure as possible before May's election. "I want to see as many people become informed as possible, " he said, "and before they come and vote on the warrant article."
Dianna Charron said she felt the SB2 method of voting is wrong for Chester. "We come to the meetings, we listen to the School Board," she said. "This is the process we use. I think we can have a fair process. I think we have a good process and I hope we keep it that way."
Resident Jean Methot said he wished the board could have cut out a bit more "fluff" from the budget. He said he still drives by Chester Academy late at night and sees lights on and said money could be saved by changing some things. "I feel as though you are poking me in the eye," Methot said. "Just get rid of some fluff."
Board members said the lights at the school are now on a timer and other things are being discussed for cutting some costs.
After the meeting ended, Selectman Steph Landau said he was a bit disappointed more people didn't come out to the annual meeting and he urged the board to perhaps get the word out better about publicizing the meeting. This year, the annual school report was not mailed to every home as in the past to cut some costs and perhaps that didn't help the meeting attendance, he said.
"I've lived here a good number of years and this entire meeting took less than three-quarters of an hour," Landau said. "We just voted through an $11 million budget that's between two-thirds and three-quarters of our tax budget."
Others voiced opinions about possibly moving the annual meeting back to a Saturday so more people could attend. Landau thanked everyone who came, but still hoped more people would have come out to vote on such a large amount of the town's money. Lamphere agreed and said when it comes time to consider the SB2 petition in May, she hopes people will do their homework, attend the public hearing, and get informed about the process before voting on such an important issue.
"If only a handful of people vote that in, we're stuck with it," she said. "I urge you, your friends and family members to come out to these meetings."
Board Chairman Michael Romick said all in all, the process was a successful one and he thanked all who did come out Wednesday to vote on the budget. "I, too, would like to see more people participate in the process," he said. "But it was a very good process."
Barbara Dolloff, a former teacher in town, thanked the School Board for all their hard work and said she was happy Chester Academy was thriving and is doing so well. "The teachers are wonderful, the administration is wonderful," Dolloff said. "I just want to say thank you very much."
Moderator Kevin Scott invited anyone interested in running for any of the open school district positions to call school district Clerk Robert Grimm at 887-8292.
Open positions to be elected in May include three school board positions, school district clerk, school district moderator, and school district treasurer. Filing period opens in Chester on March 26 and closes April 4 at 3 p.m. Filing fee is $1. Election day is Tuesday, May 13, with polls open at the town multipurpose room from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. The annual town meeting is May 14 at 7 p.m., also in the multipurpose room.