ANWSD planning for vote on $21 million budget
VERGENNES — As expected, the Addison Northwest School District Board on Jan. 18 adopted a $21.1 million unified budget proposal for the 2017-2018 academic year that will cover operations for all four ANWSD schools and their central office.
Officials said the budget maintains existing programs and teaching positions at the four ANWSD schools.
If approved on Town Meeting Day by a majority of Addison, Panton, Ferrisburgh, Vergennes and Waltham residents, the plan would increase spending over the current district-wide level by 1.68 percent and, according to ANWSD estimates, mean tax cuts for homeowners in three of those five communities.
Taking into account the 10-cent discount ANWSD will receive because residents approved unification in March, assuming lawmakers accept statewide tax rates recommended by the Vermont Department of Taxes, and adjusting for each town’s Common Level of Appraisal, ANWSD officials 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 year ago, lawmakers increased statewide tax rates at the 11th hour, adding a couple cents to the ANWSD estimates.
ANWSD officials plan to warn this budget despite Gov. Phil Scott’s surprise in his budget address last week: With no prior consultation with education officials, he proposed local districts be mandated to propose level-funded budgets and that voting on local school budgets be moved to May 23.
According to news reports, that plan faces opposition from the Democratic majority in both the Vermont House and Senate, and some of Scott’s own party members wonder about the timing of the proposal given that Feb. 5 is the latest possible warning date for Town Meeting Day.
Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos has advised local districts to submit their existing budgets. In a statement reprinted at vtdigger.org, Condos said, “We are advising town clerks (and school district clerks) to follow the current law until such time that a new law supersedes. We hope that if the Legislature passes this, there will be clear guidance for towns and school districts on what to do in that situation.”
As of this past Thursday morning, ANWSD Superintendent JoAn Canning said she had already spoken to Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, and was reaching out to Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, and Addison County’s two Democratic state senators, Clair Ayer and Chris Bray.
Canning said she has not heard a lot of support for Scott’s plan, but wants to impress on lawmakers two points: that like other local budgets, ANWSD’s is the result of a process that began in September, and that she and board members believe it balances the needs of students and taxpayers.
“The governor’s curve ball really diminishes the really hard work that’s been going on for the past four or five months, with the school board and the administration trying to come up with a responsible budget,” Canning said. “And our actual proposal is just under 2 percent, which is approximately inflation. So to think that we would now have to turn on a dime is just unconscionable.”
ANWSD’s budget will be published, she added.
“I’m going to submit my budget book to the printers, because I don’t know what is going to come out of the committee work that responds to the governor’s plan. And I can’t wait,” Canning said. “I’m hoping the governor will become more reasonable and allow us more time to get our arms around his plan and his approach.”
The other significant change to proposed spending since Jan. 11, when ANWSD board members were leaning toward the $21.1 million plan, came in their creation of a $100,000 capital improvement fund for the new unified union.
However, Canning said, that fund will not require more tax money. Officials learned that an existing net surplus from the four ANSWD schools did not have to be simply returned to the towns, as they initially believed, and chose to use $100,000 of that surplus to create the capital fund.
That surplus came from Addison Central School (about $201,000) and Ferrisburgh Central School (about $23,000), with Vergennes union high and elementary schools running small deficits.
However, district-wide surpluses created by savings from new approaches in special education over the past two years were much larger at VUHS ($393,000) and VUES ($193,000) than at FCS ($131,000) and ACS ($54,000).
Canning said the board got new information from state officials between Jan. 11 and 18, when it created the capital fund.
“We got clarification from the Agency of Education. Normally (surpluses) would go back to the towns for a decision on how to use those funds,” she said. “But since the towns will no longer have a budget in (fiscal year 2017-2018), the decision to use the surplus, or deal with a deficit, if that’s what it was, was the responsibility of the new board.”
The board had hoped to include some maintenance projects in the new budget, but ultimately chose not to in order to keep spending in check. Canning said if costs are contained this year some of that work could still be done.
“A a lot of those projects, unless we are going into the end of the year with a surplus, we’re going to have to defer,” Canning said. “If we can handle it during the current year, we’re going to have to make that decision as we head into the end of the year.”
The board will prepare a mailing to go out to residents to explain the first-ever unified union budget, and rely on other typical methods of getting out the information: newspapers, social media and word-of-mouth.
“We’re going to do a brochure. My hope is we’re going to have some articles out in the Addison Independent. We’re going to do some Front Porch Forum,” Canning said. “I’m hoping that individual board members will be visiting selectboard members to let them know how things are playing out, and just basically do some good PR in the community.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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