Burlington passes school budget increase amid absentee ballot controversy


ACCOUNTABILITY NOW: Signs for Tuesday’s school budget special election show differences between opposing sides.

By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog

BURLINGTON, Vt. — After going down to crushing defeat on Town Meeting Day, the Burlington school budget passed Tuesday by 68 votes, amid claims of voter suppression.

On March 4, Burlington residents rejected a $66.9 million school budget as voters expressed outrage at higher property taxes and fiscal mismanagement of the district. Yet on Tuesday those same voters approved an even higher budget of $67.4 million, voting yes by a slim margin of 3,259 to 3,191.

“The extremely close vote sends a clear message to the new school board that they must make good on this opportunity to correct the district’s financial troubles,” Mayor Miro Weinberger said in a statement.

But Scot Shumski, a school board member from Ward 4, said the validity of Tuesday’s election was marred by low absentee voter turnout related to Weinberger’s decision not to send out absentee ballots — a move GOP Vice Chairman Brady Toensing said was designed to “fix the outcome of the vote.”

“We have 942 people who submitted absentee versus 1,539 (for Town Meeting Day). So it’s a 600-vote differential between Election Day and today,” Shumski told Vermont Watchdog. “I predicted that people were going to be disenfranchised.”

The absentee tally between the two elections shows absentee voter turnout was far lower for Tuesday’s special election than at Town Meeting Day.

While 1,539 Burlingtonians voted absentee in March, just 942 voted absentee for the re-vote — a stunning 39 percent decrease in turnout. Tuesday’s overall vote tally of 6,450 was just 15 percent lower than the 7,542 votes cast in March.

Outgoing school board member Keith Pillsbury said that without receiving absentee ballots in the mail, many Burlington voters couldn’t have known about the special election.

“If they’re military like I was, they wouldn’t necessarily know the date of the vote…They might not know because they are busy with their own careers, whether (they are) in graduate school or military.”

FISCAL HAWK: New Burlington School Board member Mark Porter pledged to get education costs under control.

As a result of Tuesday’s vote, Burlington residents will see a residential property tax increase of 7.2 percent. Miriam Stoll, chair of the Burlington School Board Finance Committee, said Tuesday’s ‘yes’ vote means residents with a $200,000 home will see “an additional $220 dollars in taxes for the year.”

Shumski said the election indicates voters want financial accountability from the board.

“I look forward to rolling up my sleeves and working harder with my colleagues on the school board to implement the promises of fiscal reform that the board made during this election,” he said.

Shumski has new help.

In Burlington’s Ward 1, school board candidate Mark Porter, a vocal opponent of the budget increase, defeated write-in challenger Karen Newman by a vote of 237 to 218.

“I was pretty vocal about not liking the fact that the budget kept creeping up,” Porter told Vermont Watchdog. “All of a sudden there were hidden charges that came out of nowhere…it’s not been very transparent at all.”

Despite the overall increase to the budget, board-approved cuts for the upcoming year include 16 elementary classroom “paraeducators” and three elementary and middle school Spanish teachers, among other cuts.

City leaders have pledged to enact fiscal reform.

“The close vote should remind all local and state officials that much more work is needed at both levels to address the unsustainable education cost trends Vermont has experienced in recent years,” Weinberger said.

Shumski agreed.

“The majority of voters took the school board at their word that they would install the necessary fiscal controls to bring an end to the financial problems plaguing the district and that is what the voters deserve,” Shumski said.

Contact Bruce Parker at bparker@watchdog.org