Vergennes-area schoolboard considers 1.7 percent spending hike
VERGENNES — A $21.1 million spending plan for all four Addison Northwest School District (ANWSD) schools and the unified district’s central office was presented to the ANWSD board on Wednesday. If approved, this second draft proposal would increase spending over the current district-wide level by 1.68 percent.
It could also lead to lower residential property taxes in three of the five ANWSD communities — Addison, Ferrisburgh and Waltham, according to district officials. Panton and Vergennes would see tax rate increases.
At the direction of the ANWSD board, Superintendent JoAn Canning and the district’s four principals reduced by about $438,000 their initial Jan. 6 proposal for a 3.8 percent spending hike. Canning said in an interview this past Thursday that she believes consensus is developing around $21.1 million as the final number.
“I felt last night we had support for a 1.68 percent increase,” she said.
Some tweaks within that plan are probably coming. Cuts from the first draft at all four schools were made in maintenance and building projects and technology purchases, but the board wanted on this past Wednesday to see more money put back in for buildings’ more pressing needs.
Canning said she and ANWSD principals would make that adjustment, but would not cut staff and programs, and that Vergennes Union High School would be spared the axe.
“They recognize we’ve had some tough times at the high school, and frankly when we go back to the administrators I’m going to be really careful from this point forward not to touch anything at the high school,” she said.
Other cuts administrators made for Wednesday’s draft included proposed increases in the hours for VUHS art and music teachers and the Addison Central School nurse’s aide, lights for a VUHS varsity sports field, VUHS sports uniforms and equipment, and “intervention services” for VUHS students. Savings were also realized in special education costs.
The board will meet again on Wednesday at 6 p.m. to consider further tweaks within the $21.1 million proposal.
Canning and ANWSD business manager Tonia Mears last week also presented early estimates of the tax impact of that budget’s adoption. Mears cautioned that the estimates are based on Agency of Education recommended rates for homeowners who pay based either on the value or their property or on their income.
But the Legislature does not make final those rates until the end of the session in late April or May, when it is clear how much money must be raised to cover all approved Vermont school spending. In 2016, lawmakers raised the rates slightly at the end of their session. Mears said the tax rate estimates are “a shot in the dark” because of that uncertainty.
“It’s based strictly on an estimate, because the Legislature has not accepted the base rates yet,” Mears said.
Taking into account the 10-cent discount ANWSD will receive because residents approved unification in March, assuming lawmakers accept the recommended rates and ANWSD voters back a $21.1 million budget, and adjusting for each town’s Common Level of Appraisal (CLA), Mears estimated:
• Addison’s residential tax rate could decrease by 9.6 cents.
• Ferrisburgh’s residential tax rate could decrease by 12.1 cents.
• Panton’s residential tax rate could increase by 2.5 cents.
• Vergennes’ residential tax rate could increase by 1.6 cents.
• Waltham’s residential tax rate could decrease by 12.5 cents.
A new audit unveiled at Wednesday’s meeting also brought some good news: The dim financial picture that Canning inherited in the summer of 2014 has brightened.
Although long-standing food service deficits remain, officials said VUHS will run a surplus in June after being nearly $1 million in debt in 2014. Both Addison and Ferrisburgh central schools finished this past June with surpluses (about $202,000 and $23,000, respectively), and the central office has more than $64,000 in special education and Early Essential Education money to give back to schools.
Much of the good financial news comes from special education, which developed a $771,000 surplus in the past two years. Canning credited ANWSD special education director Kara Griswold for championing an approach that brought in-house some expensive contracted services, such as psychology and occupation therapy, thus saving money — and improving quality for students.
“We have decided to hire personnel locally under our own school district so that we can direct the work of the people, so that they are available, so that they not only do the work we expect them to do, but they also are building relationships with the student teams so they can provide the ongoing support necessary for kids to make progress,” Canning said on Thursday.
Special educators and teachers also now work together more regularly in classrooms.
“We have developed partnerships between special educators and regular educators so they’re team-teaching,” Canning said.
The quality of ANWSD’s special education drew praise at Wednesday’s meeting from resident Rick Ebel, a former principal at the Orchard School in South Burlington.
“I want to applaud the co-teaching model,” Ebel said, adding that he thought it was “unique and very positive.”
In the next few months, the ACS and FCS boards, which will exist until ANWSD fully unifies in July, will decide how to handle their schools’ surpluses, officials said.
This year’s VUHS budget included $293,000 to retire the VUHS debt, but according to the audit the school was only $19,000 in the hole this past June.
“I’m predicting at the end of the ’17 school year the high school will have a surplus,” Mears said.
The VUHS board will have several good choices if that surplus does materialize, officials said. The money could be put toward the FY18 unified budget or into a capital improvement fund, or applied to the food service deficit.
As for what is a $401,000 food service deficit across the four schools, Canning said a planned merger with Addison Northeast’s food service, which would place both districts’ food services under the oversight of former Ferrisburgh Central School kitchen manager Kathy Alexander, should help solve the problem.
Addison Northeast has seen an increase in student use of school food services that should translate to ANWSD, while a common menu and common purchasing would save money, Canning said.
“I believe in the next five years we will be able to get our arms around food services,” she said.
The larger message Canning said on Thursday she wanted to get out is that Addison Northwest’s finances are back on track: “It’s important for the community to know we came out of pretty dire straits in a very short order of time. And I think it is attributed to the facts that we have improved our financial policies and management, our internal controls, and really the high school administration’s leadership in monitoring that budget very closely. We also have made a significant difference in budgeting for special education because of the skills and time and attention of the special education director.”
Or, as she put in during Wednesday’s meeting, “There is room for celebration.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.