Addison Northwest warns budget with lower spending, higher taxes

VERGENNES — The Addison Northwest School District Board on Wednesday agreed to propose a district-wide spending plan of $21,106,261 that if approved by voters on Town Meeting Day would cut current spending by about $10,000.
Because of a projected statewide school tax rate increase of 9.4 cents that budget would still increase the ANWSD property tax rate by 8.33 cents, according to preliminary district estimates provided to the board. Those estimates still hinge on factors that will be determined outside the district.
When the most recently calculated Common Levels of Appraisals (CLAs) in each district community are applied, school tax rates in ANWSD communities could increase by an estimated range of 7.8 to 8.34 cents, or a little more or a little less than 5 percent. Addison would be on the low end and Panton on the high end of that range as it stands now, with the remaining three communities — Vergennes, Ferrisburgh and Waltham — at just over 8 cents.
The ANWSD tax rate increases would mean a little more or less than $80 of additional taxes per $100,000 of assessed value for those property owners who pay based solely on the value of their homes.
Results would vary for those who pay based on their income and would get prebates, a category that typically includes about two-thirds of Addison County residents.
ANWSD officials stressed that the state tax rate is a preliminary number and could change during the legislative session depending on a number of factors, including policy decisions and total statewide school spending.
“It is also important that it be stated as an estimated increase to the union rate ($0.833) because the revenues and figures given by the state can change,” said ANWSD business manager Elizabeth Atkins in a Thursday email.
Regardless, ANWSD board members at the Wednesday meeting noted the increase was to a large extent out of their control.
“They’re going up by a significant amount through no fault of our own,” said board member Bill Clark.
Board member Mark Koenig estimated that the board would have to cut $900,000 to avoid any tax rate increase, an amount the board agreed was not reasonable.
“I don’t think we could get to the point our taxes wouldn’t go up at all without severely crippling our schools,” said Chairwoman Sue Rakowski.
The adopted budget calls for eliminating three elementary school teaching jobs, the equivalent of three special education aides, a 60 percent administrative post, and a 20 percent nursing position, for a total of 6.8 full-time equivalencies.
The spending plan also assumes using $650,000 of what a draft audit stated was a district-wide fund balance of $1,629,875 at the end of the 2017 school year to offset what otherwise would be a larger tax rate increase, according to ANWSD officials.
That fund balance — essentially a surplus — stands in contrast to what was a $768,419 deficit at Vergennes Union High School at the end of the 2014 school year. District officials said then special education had not been properly funded for several years.
Superintendent JoAn Canning and Atkins said several factors contributed to the surplus, including belt-tightening, energy savings after two mild winters, the recent discovery that reimbursement for transportation costs had not been previously included in budget planning, and lower than expected special education costs.
The board deferred — to this coming Wednesday’s 6 p.m. meeting — decisions on how to handle the remaining roughly $1 million of the surplus. Canning and Atkins proposed using $423,961 to retire food-service debts at all four ANWSD schools and $381,500 to put in a “Fiscal 2018-2019 Capital Projects Fund.”
That fund, Atkins said, could pay for emergency repairs if the $7.6 million energy improvement and building security bond the board will approve this Wednesday doesn’t pass in March, or it could be put toward bond payments or used for future repairs or improvement projects.
The remaining amount of roughly $174,414 could be used for building emergencies next year or provide cushioning if the draft audit proves to be slightly off.
“We didn’t want to back you into a zero balance,” Atkins said.
Now included in the budget are energy savings expected to be $213,000 a year if voters approve the $7.6 million bond, and roughly $179,000 of interest-only bond payments the board plans to make before 2020, when also the 2000 VUHS renovation and expansion bond will be paid off.
Board members, including John Stroup and Finn Yarbrough, said it was important to get the message out about the financial effect of the bond, of which about $4.9 million would be devoted to VUHS.
The 2000 VUHS bond calls for annual payments of $400,000. The new bond, after an interest-only stage ends in 2020, is expected to cost $600,000 a year.
But because failing boilers will be replaced, insulation will be added, and a revenue-generating solar array will be installed, the energy firm consulting with the board guarantees more than $200,000 a year in savings and revenue. Board members noted the net-zero impact.
“This bond is self-funded,” Yarbrough said.
Some board members asked why taxes would go up despite a plan that calls for less spending than current levels. Atkins cited ANWSD’s projected loss of 40 students to a total of 979, which means less per-pupil state funding, and the state’s projections of a higher statewide education tax rate needed to pay for statewide school spending.
All of that means less funding for local districts, which then must raise local taxes to make up the difference.
“They’re basically just giving us less revenue,” Atkins said.
Board member George Gardner also pointed out the teachers’ retirement system had been underfunded.
“The state was not properly funding the teachers’ retirement plans,” Gardner said. “Now they’re doing something about it.”
Addison Northwest Teachers Association representative and VUHS teacher Steve Orzech said at the meeting it was to the teachers’ union’s “dismay” that after significant teacher cuts in recent years the board’s plan cut spending “on the backs of students and teachers” while “other spending is left unexamined and unchanged.” Orzech specifically questioned recent administrative hires, a human resource business partner in the central office and a director of guidance at VUHS.
Later, Canning said the budget would meet students’ needs and the elimination of teaching positions was done based on the board’s class-size policy.
“While no one likes to lose staff, I think it’s responsible,” Canning said.
Board member Finn Yarbrough also noted the proposed portion of the budget dedicated to instruction dropped by 4 percent, an amount equal to the decrease in overall ANWSD enrollment.
Canning said the week before that she hoped the teaching staff reductions could occur through teacher retirements. She clarified that remark in an email, saying that although there are no confirmed retirements there are strong possibilities.
“I am aware that some staff have been talking openly about retirement. I do not have this in writing at this point and cannot confirm,” Canning said. “So (it’s) safe to say that the district will plan to use attrition in reductions whenever possible.” 

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