Addison faces familiar budgeting challenge

ADDISON — About three dozen Addison residents gathered on Thursday to hear Addison Central School officials explain that even with about $180,000 of proposed cuts to the school’s current budget of about $1.9 million, their tax rates will rise if that plan — and the proposed Vergennes Union High School budget — passes on Town Meeting Day.
ACS Principal Wayne Howe said the issues Addison faces are the same most small, rural schools are struggling with: meeting educational mandates with limited resources while working against the economy of scale brought on by declining enrollment.
“All the schools around the state are in the same pickle,” he said. “There are some really tough long-term decisions to make.”
People left the Addison meeting Thursday believing that their tax rate could rise 20 percent, even after the ACS spending plan was cut by more than 9 percent. A closer look at the numbers the next day showed the news on size of the school tax rate hike was not as bad as presented at the meeting, though it was still pretty steep.
Officials at the meeting accidentally compared the possible new school tax rate to the 2008 tax rate of $1.35 instead of the 2009 tax rate of $1.51. Residents left the meeting thinking their tax rates would rise by 27 cents if officials cut another $154,000 from a budget they had already cut by about $26,000, or 1.37 percent.
Instead, that figure is an 11-cent increase in the overall school tax rate, from $1.51 to about $1.62, despite the $180,000 decrease in spending ACS officials are discussing.
That increase translates to $110 in new property taxes for each $100,000 of assessed value, compared to the $270 residents were assuming on Thursday night. Both figures assume property owners are not eligible for tax relief.
Regardless, most of that increase, officials said, would be due to conditions at ACS, not VUHS. The problem, ACS board chairman Don Jochum said on Thursday, is the school’s student count. Because the state pays schools based on their number of students and because ACS is projected to lose 11 students, there is less revenue.
Even more problematic is that the school’s per-pupil spending would rise dramatically. The state penalizes schools that spend in excess of the state’s average, which is a lower figure than most rural schools can meet. That penalty charges towns an extra dollar in taxes for every dollar they are over that state threshold.
Addison has paid such a penalty in recent years, but Jochum said if the board does not make an additional $154,000 cuts when it makes its budget final on Jan. 21, Addison’s penalty will be $229,000, an amount in taxes in addition to the school budget.
Normally, Jochum said a drop in spending of 1.37 percent would be good news, but that is not the case now in Addison.
“You’d say, ‘Wow, that’s a great thing,’” Jochum said. “The bad news is that because of our declining enrollment it puts our cost for excess spending at the highest it’s ever been.”
After the meeting, Jochum said he believed residents in attendance supported the plan to cut $154,000 to prevent an increase in the tax penalty.
“My sense was they didn’t want to pay that full penalty,” Jochum said.
Board members called the meeting because they did not want to put forward a lower budget without explaining the tax impact to residents.
“We felt like we’d like your input as to … what the town is willing to pay or not pay,” Jochum said.
Many residents sought clarity on what programs might be at stake.
“We want to know what each program costs and what you’re taking away,” said one resident.
But officials mostly on Thursday said they had to focus on the larger question.
“The board has not decided what (the cuts) would be,” Howe said. “The board would like some feedback on how much of the penalty the taxpayers would like to bear.”
Howe said cuts would not affect reading, mathematics, writing and science at ACS.
“This is the core function of our business,” Howe said.
He added that despite the drop in students at ACS from 123 two years ago to 115 this year to a projected 104 next year, classrooms that combine grades are not in the immediate future.
“In the nine years I’ve been here, we’ve lost a third of the kids in the school,” Howe said. “It’s not enough to consolidate classrooms, but we’re going to have to make some tough staffing decisions because of this.”
The board will drop its annual request for about $30,000 to support capital funds, and also on the table will be personnel involved in what Jochum called “specials,” such as the school’s library, and art, music and physical education programs. He said his preference would be to spread out the pain.
“My goal is to touch all the programs a little bit,” he said.
Longtime board member Rob Hunt said while Thursday was not the right time to discuss too many details, board members also would welcome feedback up to and at the board’s Jan. 21 meeting on what programs to preserve, if possible.
“We’ll take feedback until we go home,” Hunt said.
Some residents said they were concerned that the board was adequately dealing with the long-term crisis.
“If we don’t get a handle on it this year, we never will,” said one, later adding, “You can say it’s $220,000 now, but next year it’s going to be $440,000.”
But Jochum said after the meeting that the board did not want to make drastic changes this year with the expected March vote on whether Addison Northwest Supervisory Union would be governed under one board. That change, which voters rejected a few years ago, would mean that Addison’s elementary students would be counted as part of the larger ANwSU population, and the per-pupil spending penalty would vanish.
“I’d like to see what happens to the UU (unified union) vote on Town Meeting Day before we look at more (cuts),” Jochum said. “It would be difficult to completely gut our programs and turn around next year and have to re-establish them.”
Residents and officials also talked about the unified union vote during the meeting, with most speaking in favor.
Howe said changes in state laws, including the per-pupil penalty and the end to state grants that help support small schools, are designed to encourage consolidation and will make it increasingly difficult for ACS to remain solvent in the years to come. The unified union’s removal of the penalty would more than offset any disadvantages, he said.
“What looked like the devil five years ago may be the angel now,” Howe said. “In the long run you end up preserving this (school) as an opportunity for Addison kids.”
Jochum said he opposed unification five years ago, but had changed his mind after running for the school board in part because of that issue.
“Now that I’ve learned the ins and outs of the school system … I am convinced its the only way to preserve what we have here as long as we can,” Jochum said.
Regardless of residents’ opinions, said board member George Lawrence, he urged those in attendance to spread the word to get in touch with school board members.
“Talk to your neighbors and tell them what the issues are,” Lawrence said. “Tell them to contact us so we can make informed decisions.”

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