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Editorial: There's value in the challenge 

A lawsuit arguing the ConVal School District miscalculated its default budget for the 2013-2014 school year will be rendered moot if voters approve the proposed $45,448,301 operating budget. But if not, the lawsuit would mean $445,977 in savings from the default budget. There’s a lot at stake this budget season and the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

A default budget — which is based on the last year’s approved operating budget adjusted to reflect contractual obligations — goes into effect when a budget article fails in the context of SB2 official ballot form of government. Gail Cromwell of Temple, a former ConVal School Board member, filed the suit, claiming the district erroneously included nearly half a million dollars more than it should have in the default budget that will appear on this year’s school ballot. Her suit says that’s because cost savings in staff reductions were not accounted for and one-time expenditures from last year are erroneously included.

ConVal representatives responded to the lawsuit Thursday, affirming the accuracy of the $44,831,807 default budget and challenging Cromwell’s calculations.

Regardless of who is right, the legal process Cromwell initiated is proving to be instructive. ConVal’s response to the lawsuit, however, is critical of the steps that have been taken. It states, “The calculation of a default budget is not the proper subject of a declaratory judgment action. The petitioner has ample opportunity to engage in political speech outside of the judicial process. The judicial process should not be misused to meddle with the electoral process. If the petitioner is dissatisfied with the School Board’s calculation of the default budget, then she has adequate remedy through the political process.” It will be interesting to hear the court’s position on this. It is our understanding that Cromwell brought her concerns to the School Board and was not satisfied by the answer, and the lawsuit was the next recourse she took. Challenging government is every citizen’s prerogative, even if the governing body is ultimately found to be in the right.

But again, the accuracy of the default budget will not be an issue if voters decide to support a number of new programs and additions included in the proposed budget for next year, including full-day kindergarten throughout the district, the addition of a preschool program for children with special needs, which will be open to other children as a paid program, and another nurse in the district, among other things. The default budget would merely preserve the existing budget, plus any contractual obligations, such as raises.

There have been some calls for cuts this year. Charlie Champagne, a member of the Selectmen’s Advisory Committee from Dublin, noted at the deliberative session that there may be some cost-saving opportunities ConVal isn’t taking advantage of for such things such as heating oil. And the Selectmen’s Advisory Committee wanted $1 million to be cut from the proposed budget, an attempt at the deliberative session that failed, with 347 voters opposed and 175 in favor.

ConVal has a long-term goal of one day becoming a high-performing district; school administrators say the programs included in this year’s budget are a step in that direction. ConVal has long enjoyed the support of voters, and all indications point to that this time around. But the value of challenging the numbers and the process should never be dismissed.

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