Today marks Bennington voters’ third opportunity to vote on the Bennington School District budget for the fiscal year 2014.
The majority of those who participated in the first vote, on Town Meeting Day in March, voted down the spending plan.
A second vote for a revised school budget vote was held May 21, and again the voting majority voted down the plan.
Today’s special election, with voting from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Bennington River Street firehouse, is the district’s final chance at passing a further revised budget -- one that is $1 million less than the original March proposal.
Voters will be deciding on proposed spending set at $12.486 million, an increase of approximately 9.92 percent over current spending. The amount represents an increase in property taxes of $54.30 on a $100,000 home before any income sensitivity prebate.
If a budget is not approved by June 30, the school board must make additional cuts to comply with an 87 percent budget. Those cuts -- on top of already proposed reductions -- will likely be from the teaching staff; in arts, music and physical education instruction; and other programs.
The issue has drawn passionate support for passing the budget and equal vehemence for voting against it.
Jamie Rogers of Bennington’s letter to the editor against the BSD budget was published May 24. "As a parent who strongly encourages and believes in the power of education, I want nothing more than to provide the BSD with what they need to provide ‘quality education.’ ... Not one BSD school met AYP and the number of children who were not proficient in basic reading and math skills will alarm you. The problem is at the systems level not in the budgeting."
Chris Murphy, father of two children at Monument Elementary, recently created a Facebook group, "Parents and Friends of the BSD," to get people to vote for the budget today. Volunteers with that group also distributed flyers around town and at events to spread the word.
Rachel Payne, a Bennington resident and district parent, also a member of "Parents and Friends of the BSD," wrote a letter to the editor that was published June 6 in favor of voting for the current proposed budget. "The BSD board members and school administrators have made the tough decisions that we asked them to make. Their proposed budget provides a quality education despite rising needs and reduced resources. Raising taxes impacts us all but so would an underfunded school system. It is time for our community to step forward and vote "yes" on this important issue," Payne wrote.
Bennington resident Jackie Kelly has written letters to the editor asking voters to vote against the budget before two of the three BSD budget votes.
In a letter published June 6, Kelly wrote: "We need more transparency and budgets written in plain English." She suggested cost savings could be achieved by shuffling grades among Bennington schools, increasing class sizes for grades 3 to 5; and streamlining the (special education) program.
On the same day, the Banner published a letter signed by Ken Swierad, BSD board chair, and George Sleeman, BSD vice chair, asking Bennington voters to support the budget. They wrote, "There are increases in health insurance 10 percent, teacher wages 3 percent, and utilities, while at the same time significant decreases in federal aid to schools and Title dollars which makes for the 9.9 percent increase in the budget." They added that the school district has sent out Reduction in Force letters to eight classroom teachers and 12 special education teachers in case the budget does not pass, "which would be catastrophic for the children of Bennington."
The arguments from both viewpoints are certainly persuasive, but ultimately the cuts the school district will have to make if today’s budget doesn’t pass will be worse for Bennington’s schools and for its students.
If you haven’t already, take a few minutes to go down to the fire house and cast your vote -- for the budget.