- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Voters across Vermont weren’t as hard on local school budgets this year as they were in 2014, an indication that local school officials were listening to voters who were unhappy with increasing costs last year, two officials said Wednesday.

During 2015 town meetings across the state, 20 school budgets were rejected and 226 were approved. On Wednesday, 20 had yet to be decided. Last year, 37 towns rejected school budgets.

Jeffrey Francis of the Vermont Superintendents Association said school officials and state lawmakers have recognized the need for a new way to educate children while minimizing costs.

“I think that the energy this year is different than it was last year. Last year, voter sentiment was a response to increase in property taxes and the sense that something needed to be done,” Francis said. “This year, school districts have sent the message that they are responding to taxpayer sentiment.”

The number of budget rejections so far this year was in line with the eight-year average of just over 18 rejections.

“I think that 37 defeats was reflective of increases in property taxes and high education spending,” Francis said. “I believe those two things are still in existence, but I think local school officials have responded with more conservative budget proposals.”

Steve Dale of the Vermont School Boards Association said the average school budget increase this year was 2.95 percent and the average increase cost per student was 3.11 percent.

“It’s the smallest per student increase in a very long time,” Dale said. “So local boards did a great job of bringing in budgets at a very reasonable level.”

Both Francis and Dale said local voters and officials know lawmakers in Montpelier are seeking ways to make education more affordable in the face of decreasing numbers of students and increasing costs.

A House committee last week passed a bill that would encourage school districts to work together to save money and find other savings.

But while the number of school budget rejections can be a measure of public discontent, the number also is driven by local issues and personalities. “So when you look at the districts that rejected their budgets, in many instances there’s a back story or it’s about specific relationships (or) history,” Dale added.

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