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VUHS plan gets nod in big turnout in ANwSU

VERGENNES — Addison Northwest Supervisory Union voters on Tuesday gave a $10,026,000 Vergennes Union High School budget proposal a narrow victory, 1,495-1,370. The budget calls for a 2.23 percent cut from current spending.
In percentage terms, the margin translates to a 52-48 percent decision in strong turnout in the five ANwSU communities. The presidential primary and the ANwSU unification vote (the measure passed; see story) helped bring voters to polling places, which exceeded 50 percent turnout in several towns.
In a separate article, ANwSU residents voted 1,781-1,031, or 63-37 percent, to place $100,000 in a capital fund to help take care of long-term VUHS building improvement and maintenance needs.
Counting that $100,000, total VUHS spending would be reduced by about $134,000, or 1.3 percent, from the current level of almost $10.26 million.
Because of ongoing school funding uncertainty in the Legislature, it is difficult to predict the tax impact in ANwSU of voter support for budgets at VUHS, Ferrisburgh Central, Addison Central and Vergennes Union Elementary schools, despite good-faith estimates made by ANwSU officials.
ANwSU unification will not reduce the local property tax burden this year, but will offer a 10-cent discount on ANwSU tax rates in the 2017-2018 tax year, plus smaller discounts in the following four years.
Voters backed the three elementary school budgets by solid margins on Tuesday.
ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning said she was grateful for residents’ approval of proposed school spending.
“I am so excited about the budgets passing. I so appreciate the community support of our schools,” she said. “Passing those budgets, and also passing unification, gives us a resounding support from the community that we are on the right track.” 
Canning acknowledged the vote was closest at VUHS, where the financial challenges have been greatest.
There, the board had proposed spending over Act 46 penalty limits because of several factors: a dramatic decline in state aid for special education, a decline in the number of equalized students that pushed per-pupil spending higher, and the need to include $254,000 in the budget to pay off a special education funding deficit that followed years of poor accounting for those costs.
“It was a closer vote because we were going over the threshold, obviously,” Canning said. “But also there’s been a history of the high school budget in the last two years having trouble passing. And people are wondering what’s going on, what’s happening at the high school, and why is it so hard, without understanding that we really are making the changes that the people in the community are asking us to make in terms of being fiscally responsible.”
Complicating the VUHS vote was a ballot, dictated by state law, that indicated the per-pupil spending was rising by 10 percent, even though the actual student count had not changed (a rolling three-year average kicked in this year), and the board actually cut about $234,000 from the budget, not counting the capital fund article.
Canning said some voters might not have been aware of the cuts, which will include $88,000 from eliminating the school’s in-house agriculture program. Canning said with a similar course offered at the Patricia Hannaford Career Center and VUHS enrollment dropping, the course became a victim of numbers as outlined in the board’s class-size policy.
Also on the administrators’ probable reduction list are not rehiring a principal’s secretary, which will save $53,700 in salary and benefits; cutting part-time English and science positions, saving about $44,000; reducing $22,000 apiece from extracurricular activities and Community Based Learning program transportation; lowering expected fuel costs by $35,000; and saving $17,500 by not hiring substitutes for custodians.
Town by town, the voting on the VUHS budget was:
• Addison: 252 yes, 284 no.
• Ferrisburgh: 587 yes, 509 no.
• Panton: 85 yes, 141 no.
• Vergennes: 466 yes, 395 no.
• Waltham: 105 yes, 41 no.
Looking ahead, Canning said VUHS will have one more year of a large payment to retire the special education deficit. The fact that it will coincide with the first year of the 10-cent discount on local tax rates after ANwSU’s successful unification vote could give the VUHS board some help next winter while it crafts its final budget.
“Absolutely it will have a very positive impact on our high school,” Canning said. “We’ll be given a little wiggle room to think how we need to be more strategic.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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