Declining enrollment hits Addison Central

ADDISON — Addison Central School officials have scheduled a Jan. 7 budget forum to explain to residents how their taxes could go up dramatically next year unless the ACS board slashes its draft 2010-2011 school budget deeply — much further than the lower spending that the board has considered already. Cuts on the table would affect ACS programs and employees.
ACS Principal Wayne Howe and Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Supervisory Union Superintendent Tom O’Brien said the central problem is that the school has fewer students, and the Vermont Department of Education funds schools on a per-pupil basis.
“We’re a small school,” Howe said. “The loss of just three or four kids can really wreak havoc.”
And ACS projects to lose a dozen students next year. The board is now looking at a draft budget of $1.87 million that would lower spending from the current level by 1.2 percent. But even with that amount cut, the school’s per-pupil spending would rise next year by more than $2,000 to around $16,700.
The education department will next year start penalizing schools for per-pupil spending in excess of about $14,500. That penalty, O’Brien said, will be a dollar-for-dollar additional tax assessment for the spending in excess of the state threshold. Unless ACS makes major cuts, the burden to Addison taxpayers will add up quickly next year.
“That means (town residents would) pay dollar-for-dollar an additional $230,000 in education tax,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien said ACS is already paying such a penalty this year, but the new, larger figure represents an increase of about $155,000 even with cuts the board is already eyeing.
Given the size of the problem, officials hoped to bring residents into the discussion and scheduled the forum, which will begin at 6:30 p.m. next Thursday at the school
“It’s an opportunity for the community to hear about the challenges the board faces about the budget,” O’Brien said. “And its not so much about the budget, per se … The problem is their cost per pupil has exceeded the threshold.”
Howe said the choices would not be easy. All the grade levels are just a little bit smaller, and board members are not seriously considering combining classes at this point.
Instead, Howe said the board would consider a range of possible cuts to programs and part-time personnel, including to the areas of music, art, guidance, technology, reading, library and physical education.
Howe expects difficult conversations and tough choices will be in the offing.
“It’s reality. We’ve got to step up to the plate,” he said.
Howe said he has been gratified by the level of Addison’s support for its school. But now he believes the board must weigh carefully what residents are willing and able to afford.
“It depends on how much the board feels the town can bear,” Howe said.
O’Brien hopes the special meeting can help board members make decisions on spending levels and programs, given the severity of the budget crisis.
“That’s one of the reasons the board wanted to give the community a chance to weigh in,” O’Brien said. “They have to make some fairly significant changes around spending, and those decisions will have significant impacts on programs and personnel.”
Both leaders said they do not see this year’s spending crunch as a one-time crisis, but one that ACS officials have to address in the long run.
“The decline in enrollment is pretty significant, and I think the decline in numbers suggests it is going to continue at that rate,” O’Brien said.
Howe said the board will act to find an acceptable solution for the upcoming year, but then must address what the school can continue to offer in the years to come.
The board just feels we want to hold that (budget) to a certain line while we look a little more long-term,” he said.
What Howe wants to make sure to preserve are the essentials.
“There are the same priorities we had 150 years ago — reading, writing, arithmetic,” he said.
As to how much or exactly what else can be preserved if nothing else changes, Howe said he is not sure.
“I expect over the next two or three years we’re going to have to make some tough decisions … to keep this a school people love,” he said.
One change could help Addison, officials said. If voters approve a fully unified union under one board governance, as is now being considered, then ANwSU has a large population of elementary school students in several schools, and no one school — not ACS, Ferrisburgh Central School or Vergennes Union Elementary School — would be bumping up against a per-pupil limit.
“We would then have a district with 600 or 700 elementary kids,” Howe said. “It would be a non-issue.”

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