Addison Northwest board to get look at first unified spending plan

VERGENNES — Residents of Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham can get their initial look on this coming Wednesday at what will be first-ever unified Addison Northwest School District (ANWSD) budget to include spending for all four local schools and their central office.
A draft budget for the 2017-2018 school year of the soon-to-be-unified district, formerly known as Addison Northwest Supervisory Union, will be unveiled in the Vergennes Union High School library at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.
It will include funding to operate VUHS and Addison Central, Ferrisburgh Central and Vergennes Union Elementary schools, plus, said Superintendent Joan Canning, a separate central office budget to cover administrative, transportation, special education and Early Essential Education costs.
Canning presented a draft of that central office budget to the ANWSD board in November, and she said next week’s meeting will focus on the four ANWSD schools.
Organizing the data internally for a new budgeting system has for the most part gone smoothly, but Canning said ANWSD officials are concerned about how to present the information to five communities, two of which in the past have voted separately on single-town elementary school budgets.
That issue will certainly be on the table at next week’s and future meetings.
“The biggest challenge for us right now is to create a K-12 budget that the community understands,” Canning said. “The challenge is to continue to act like a K-12 system when people are still asking questions like they are individual schools.”
Canning also wants to be clear that the 10-cent tax break the ANWSD towns earned by supporting unification in March is not simply deducted from last year’s rate.
Rather, that amount will be a discount from whatever final rate is necessary to support the budget that ANWSD residents approve this coming March. And then towns’ Common Levels of Appraisal (CLAs) can move rates up or down further.
Canning said in preparing a budget proposal, she and other ANWSD officials kept in mind two directives from the ANWSD board, to keep taxes down and to preserve programs.  
But she added making accurate tax rate projections at this point is not realistic because of factors that include 2017 CLAs are not yet known and the Legislature will not make final statewide school tax rates until spring. 
“The board wants to see tax rates kept low, and that’s certainly the promise when we went to unified, that we’ll have lower taxes. And we’re not going to know that information until the CLA comes out and we have some other data from the department (of taxes), so I have no prediction,” Canning said. “On the other side, they (board members) want to make sure we’re continuing to not decimate our programs. They want to make sure the decisions we make are fiscally responsible, but don’t have a negative impact on the students.”
What Canning can say now is that the central office budget included a “slight reduction in special ed and preschool.” She said she is still working through the consolidation of the administrative portion of the budget, “but when you take out all the areas that we consolidated, we’re looking at about 3 percent (higher) right now.”
As for school budgeting, Canning said the formal process began in October, when principals started to gather budget information from maintenance and food service heads and teachers. That work will be included in the presentation on this coming Wednesday.
The global budget should include some benefits from consolidation, including savings from fewer school boards and board members — there will be fewer audits, less board insurance, fewer board stipends, and less treasurers’ pay.
“I’m not making projections right at the moment, but I am anticipating realizing some savings,” Canning said.
The budgets also have to account for a new salary and benefits package that the board and the teachers’ union is now negotiating. The sides are now far apart, making it not an easy task.
“It’s always a challenge,” Canning said. “We’re projecting as best as we can.”
Officials are hopeful next year they will be able to retire the VUHS deficit, which came from several years of under-budgeting for special education costs under the previous ANwSU administration. It is set to be paid off at $267,000 a year for three years, with 2017-2018 the second year.
But Canning said there is hope for a surplus from the current year, and if an ongoing audit confirms it, the debt could be paid off next year. “It’s contingent on the final audit numbers,” she said.
Some other changes are in the works, Canning said. The VUHS athletic director, now Peter Maneen, will see responsibilities extended to the ANWSD elementary schools, a move that she believes will bring continuity to the programs and “common expectations” for coaching at the elementary level.
The position of maintenance manager at VUHS, now filled by Bob Worley, will be discontinued, Canning said, and a new position established: “director for buildings and grounds and safety for the school district.”
And, she said, ANWSD is talking with Addison Northeast Supervisory Union officials about sharing a food service director. Former Ferrisburgh elementary food service head Kathy Alexander now holds that position at ANeSU, and Canning said she could end up overseeing food operations at both now-unified school districts.

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