MANCHESTER -- Voters returned two incumbent select board members to their posts during Tuesday’s balloting, while passing a school budget and choosing a new school director in a race between two newcomers.
Incumbent Steve Nichols defeated Greg Cutler, a member of the Development Review Board, for the 3-year select board seat by a 405-272 margin. Steve Drunsic, who had withdrawn earlier as a candidate, still got 68 votes.
In the race for the 2-year seat, incumbent Carol Lattuga defeated challenger Karen Geriak, 363-247.
In a race between two non-incumbents for the town’s school board, Mark Kaplan defeated Stephen Murphy 438-191 for the 2-year seat. Brian Vogel, who currently holds a 2 year seat, won election to the open 3-year seat, running unopposed.
The school district’s $11.692 million school budget was also approved by a 424-172 margin.
All told, 707 votes out of a checklist of 3,577 were cast, according to Town Clerk Linda Spence, which she described as an "average" turnout.
On Monday night, what is usually a quiet and thinly attended floor meeting of the Manchester School District provided some rare drama for the 70 or so voters present.
Discussion on the first article on the school district’s warning, which called for approving a tuition rate of $14,875 for students who are residents of Manchester, brought Christina Rainville, a resident and an attorney at the Bennington County States Attorney’s office, to the microphone. She said she was not speaking as a public official or an attorney, but as a private citizen. She questioned whether or not Burr and Burton had accurately been accounting money intended to defray special education costs. She also questioned whether or not the school was accurately reporting how much money it withdrew from its endowment fund, or other fund-raising efforts, to offset the costs of educating its students.
Even though the school is a tax exempt organization, the federal government requires it to file a form known as a 990 with the Internal Revenue Service which details the amount of deductions or expenses drawn from an endowment. But in recent years, the school has not indicated withdrawals from that fund on the relevant tax forms, Rainville said.
"The representations and promises Burr and Burton makes each year about the money coming from fund-raising is not supported and they tell the federal government something completely different," she said.
With regard to the special education money, Rainville, a parent of one recent BBA graduate and has another student currently at theschool, said she was raising the issue because she feels passionately about kids living in the county, stated that, all told, about $300,000 covering the years from 2008 to 2010 was apparently unaccounted for after BBA paid its special education expenses.
In response, Seth Bongartz, the chairman of Burr and Burton’s board of trustees, termed Rainville’s allegations "preposterous."
"Burr and Burton is about integrity and that includes financial integrity," he said.. "We run a transparent operation .... everything we have ever told you is absolutely the case. To say we don’t spend money from the endowment is absolutely preposterous."
Rainville moved to amend the article on the amount of Burr and Burton’s tuition rate. The amended motion called for Burr and Burton to provide complete and audited financial statements each year and full accounting for special education funding. Additionally, the amendment called for any leftover special education revenue to be used the following year, and that all children enrolled in a special education program would have the right to appeal if they were dropped from receiving special education services. She also asked for Burr and Burton to provide financial statements from 2007 to the present.
The discussion that followed focused on whether a town meeting was the right forum to start spelling out contract language and aboutwhether this was more appropriately dealt with at a school board meeting.
"The allegations that have been made are serious and I think they ought to be looked into," said Orland Campbell, a retired attorney and an emeritus trustee of the school. "For us to act on this amendment is to remove from reasoned research the ability of the school board to make a decision for themselves."
A paper ballot was called for, and when the results were tallied, Rainville’s amendment was defeated 62-6.
Voters then passed the article pertaining to Burr and Burton’s tuition rate as originally written and without further discussion. On Tuesday afternoon, a letter from the Burr and Burton board of trustees was received by The Journal, intended to refute Rainville’s charges point by point.
The trustees’ letter itemizes the annual draw from the school’s endowment from 2009 to 2012, indicating more than $1.2 million has been moved from the endowment fund to offset expenses, according to audited financial statements, the letter states. It goes on to note that since 2009, the school’s fund-raising efforts have yielded more than $11.4 million.
The letter also takes issue with Rainville’s concerns over the mismatch of special education funding, noting that special education rates and services are approved by state authorities.
"Special education expenses are essentially fixed, with salaries and benefits comprising the overwhelming majority of expenses," the letter states in part. "We set our staffing levels and make contractual commitments in April based on enrollment estimates for the coming school year. Our revenues are determined based on actual enrollment. Thus, if enrollment exceeds budget, our revenues will increase. Similarly, if enrollment is less than budgeted, we could experience a shortfall."
When reached Tuesday evening, Rainville said she would urge residents to read the IRS 990 forms, which are available at no cost online, and make their own decisions.
Following the discussion over the 990 forms and the special education money, voters made short work of the rest of the warning on Monday night.
An article calling for $45,000 for the Manchester School District’s bus reserve fund also passed, and was followed by a short discussion of the school district’s overall budget. Carol DuPont, a town resident, noted that the school board approved its budget by only a 3-2 vote and wanted to know what the two dissenting board members thought. Brian Vogel, one of the two board members who voted against the budget last month, said he felt the numbers in the school budget hadn’t been "fully vetted."
Back last December, as the school budget was starting to take shape, a lot of the numbers were still in flux, a situation that persisted into January, he said.
"It was difficult to get a grip on the entire budget as presented," he said. "The question (the vote by the school board on the budget) was called and the vote was taken before we felt there was adequate discussion."
Nevertheless, no further questions were asked by the audience and the meeting adjourned shortly afterwards.