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Change in ACSU policy to affect taxes in 7 towns

MIDDLEBURY — A majority of the Addison Central Supervisory Union board on Wednesday endorsed a new assessment structure for central office expenses that is expected to slightly increase education property taxes for Middlebury residents while slightly decreasing them for the other six communities in the district.
Central office expenses — which include ACSU administration, technology, professional development, insurance and advertising costs — are currently assessed based on the district schools’ number of licensed educators. Assessments this year ranged from $50,597 for Ripton (with 6.5 full-time equivalent teachers) to $763,438 for UD-3, which has a combined total of 98 full-time equivalent educators in Middlebury Union middle and high schools.
But ACSU officials conducted a recent survey of 46 Vermont supervisory unions to see how they assessed their central office costs. Twenty-six supervisory unions responded. Of those, 17 reported basing their assessments on equalized student counts at member schools; four based the assessments on licensed staff; and five used some “other” accounting method.
Based on this and other research, ACSU administrators recommended that the district switch to equalized student counts at member schools in assessing all central office expenses, except for professional development — a fairly small component of the overall $1.58 million annual budget. Since the Mary Hogan Elementary and UD-3 schools serve by far the most students in the ACSU, this assessment transition will have the effect of making the ID-4 (Middlebury) district responsible for 22.4 percent (up from the current 19.7 percent) of the ACSU central office budget and UD-3 responsible for 55.7 percent, up from the current 48.1 percent.
The bottom line: The switch is expected to add around $22 to the annual education property taxes of the owner of a $200,000 home in Middlebury. It is expected to decrease the yearly tax bills for the owners of similarly valued properties in the six other, smaller ACSU-member towns by a range of $11 in Salisbury to $31 in Bridport. Those savings in the six towns will somewhat be offset by an increase of around $120,000 in the UD-3 assessment.
It’s a switch that drew opposition from several ACSU board members on Wednesday — primarily from Middlebury representatives.
“On the surface, it seems fair,” board member Karen Lefkoe of Middlebury said of the notion of assessing according to student count. “But that’s not how we spend money … We spend money according to our needs.”
Those needs, Lefkoe said, are spelled out in each individual school’s budget priorities. And each school sets its own priorities, which directly influence how much assistance it requires from the ACSU central office, according to Lefkoe.
“As long as we don’t have centralized governance, we continue to basically treat the central office as a service provider,” she said. She challenged the notion that the Mary Hogan School actually requires 22 percent of the ACSU central office’s focus and attention in a given year.
Board member Matt Landis of Middlebury said the best solution might be to have assessments based on a combination of professional staff and student counts.
“It seems like the fairest way would be a blend of the two,” Landis said.
Cornwall representative Peter Conlon sided with his Middlebury colleagues, arguing that the smaller, rural schools that want to continue making their own decisions on staffing and budgeting must be willing to pay the true costs of that independence.
“The fact is, (that independence) comes at a cost,” Conlon said. But the new assessment system, he said, will ironically be reducing costs for the rural schools while boosting expenses for the larger schools that have to do business more efficiently.
“The rural school model that we have — which we love and is excellent — is expensive, and I believe this is part of the cost,” Conlon said.
Other representatives, however, pointed to the survey results showing widespread use of equalized pupil counts in determining central office assessments, and suggested the ACSU should follow suit.
Carol Ford, a board representative from Ripton, said her town’s use of central office services is often unpredictable from year to year. She said the Ripton school used a lot of central office expertise recently in organizing a roof project. Ford added that the smaller schools often have to lean on ACSU expertise after hiring new principals. But she said absent major projects or new administrative hires, rural schools tend to use central office personnel very sparingly.
“It changes from year to year, so I don’t know you can get a valid (picture) of what we’re looking for that doesn’t change the next day, month or year,” Ford said.
Bridport representative Leonard Barrett said the switch might present some initial financial hardship for Middlebury, but added, “Over time, I think this is going to average out. I do think this is a better (assessment) way, in the long run.”
After around 20 minutes of debate on the issue, the ACSU board decided by a majority voice vote to approve the assessment switch. They also unanimously endorsed a non-controversial move to assess special education costs based on student count. Taxpayers in the ACSU-member towns of Middlebury, Cornwall, Bridport, Salisbury, Ripton, Shoreham and Weybridge had been responsible for the special education expenses incurred by the children within their respective communities.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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