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Vergennes-area unified school budget draft is unveiled

VERGENNES — Addison Northwest School District (ANWSD) administrators on Dec. 28 presented a $21.59 million draft budget for the 2017-2018 school year, the first year that all four district schools will operate under one board and one spending plan.
If approved as is, Superintendent JoAn Canning said that plan would boost spending over the current level — the combined total of this year’s combined Vergennes Union high and elementary schools and Addison and Ferrisburgh Central schools, including central office expenses — by 3.97 percent.
But Canning said changes are possible, even probable, before the board adopts a final budget. Talks will continue this coming Wednesday at 6 p.m. in the VUHS library.
Canning said the board asked her and other ANWSD administrators to bring back two other options, a “level-program” budget that would maintain current staff and programs, but mean increased costs due to higher salaries and benefits and rising utility prices, and a “level-funded” budget.
Canning called that latter approach unlikely because it would mean about $825,000 of cuts from the initial budget proposal, cuts that she said would compromise programming.
But she said she would meet with school principals to look for savings for the first approach.
“We’ve been asked to come back and provide a level-program budget,” she said. “That’s an option for them (board members) to consider.”
Canning does not expect cuts in personnel and offerings.
“We are trying to present with all the staff we currently have and the programs for our students,” she said.
ANWSD board chairwoman Laurie Childers said in an email there were new items in the initial proposal, including $53,000 for half the cost of lighting the varsity soccer field; $30,000 in other athletic program costs, such as uniforms, goals and officials’ pay; $221,000 for maintenance issues at all four schools; $62,000 for a new human resources position; $16,000 for a VUES speech pathologist; and other salary hikes involving switches to a district-wide maintenance manager and substitute teacher coordinator.
Officials agree it is too early to guess where the district tax rate will land, although they are hopeful. Residents will get a 10-cent discount on the final tax rate the Vermont Department of Taxes sets to support ANWSD spending. That discount was offered as an incentive to ANWSD residents if they backed unification, as they did this past March.
Officials cautioned that discount does not mean a 10-cent lower rate than is currently in place: Factors are putting financial pressure on ANWSD.
Canning and ANWSD business manager Tonia Mears said preliminary estimates call for a drop of about 70 equalized pupils in ANWSD, from 1,089 to 1,020. Any decrease means a loss of revenue that taxes will have to cover.
Childers added ANWSD is also “expecting a reduction in grant revenue,” specifically in multi-year grants granted with the expectation that ANWSD will gradually pick up more or the costs each year, adding to the revenue crunch.
And the ANWSD teachers’ union and board remain far apart in talks for a new contract, with most recently the board seeking more teacher hours and offering veteran teachers a $747 raise, and teachers pointing out they are already paid less than their peers in surrounding districts and seeking a hike of almost 11 percent.
The ANWSD board and administrators are also discussing how best to present and explain the new budget, when adopted, to residents of the five district towns. Canning said they want to be transparent, but don’t want to present a confusing amount of detail — officials are talking about the “grain size” of data to be offered.
“This is a growing year because the board had to make a decision about the grain size of information that they’re going to put out in a budget,” she said. “Because if they had done it like they have done it in the past we would be posting about 25 to 30 pages of budget information, and that’s not going to work.”
The shape of the final report remains a work in progress, but residents can probably expect more of a focus on the district rather than its individual schools.
“They (board members) want a K-12 budget. They don’t want multiple lines that describe the same thing like we have had in the past,” Canning said. “So we’re going to be able to streamline this, but we need to be really clear about what is in the budget and also giving the board some clear talking points about what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Some savings from unification are being realized in board and treasurer pay and board insurance, and in next year’s spending plan the audit line will be smaller — only one entity’s finances will need review.
“We can expect to save for the ’18 audit, because the ’18 audit will be the first single audit,” Mears said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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