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Vote warned for $36.7 million ACSD budget

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central School District board on Monday unanimously agreed to present Middlebury-area voters with a $36,762,479 spending plan to cover public school expenses in the seven district-member towns. This budget reflects a 1.32-percent spending decrease and would result in elimination of more than 20 full-time-equivalent jobs.
The budget — if approved on March 6 by residents in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge — would drive an estimated district education tax rate of $1.6379 per $100 in property value, a 4.35-cent increase over this year. It should be noted that district tax rate number doesn’t reflect Common Level of Appraisal impacts, which will make the actual tax impact vary in each community, depending on their most recent reappraisal of property values.
Board member Ruth Hardy, leader of the ACSD panel’s finance committee, said she believes the proposed fiscal year 2019 spending plan fulfills three major goals district officials had set at the outset of the budgeting process:
•It places the district on a more sustainable financial trajectory going forward. To avoid substantial cuts this year would have been to postpone tough financial decisions to future years, she told her colleagues on Monday.
“This was a thing we wanted to do — was to try to avoid, every single year, coming back with more and more budget cuts,” Hardy said, “because that can be draining on personnel and on morale,” said Hardy, an East Middlebury resident.
School districts will face some external financial pressures regardless of local efforts, Hardy acknowledged. Ongoing education finance reforms at the state level and unpredictable school funding from Washington will likely keep pressure on schools to provide more services with less money.
•  It provides a more equitable distribution of educational amenities throughout the school district, which includes the elementary schools in the seven towns, along with Middlebury Union middle and high schools. For example, the now-global pre-K-to-grade-12 spending plan in the ACSD would extend foreign language instruction (Spanish), for the first time, to Bridport, Cornwall, Salisbury and Shoreham elementary schools.
“We are suddenly budgeting for nine school buildings with different grades in each building,” Hardy noted. “We wanted to allocate resources — including personnel, services and programs — across the district to ensure we were treating students equitably.”
Until recently, the individual schools developed their own budgets fielded separately by voters.
•  It responds to taxpayers’ concerns about tightening the reins on education spending during an era when student enrollment is declining, a trend that is projected to continue statewide barring a substantial shift in Vermont’s job market.
“We wanted to build a budget and a resulting tax rate that was affordable and fair to our voters and taxpayers,” Hardy said. “We all know that our community is not just the people who show up at our meetings, it’s not just the kids who come to our schools, it’s not just the parents of those kids and the teachers who work in the schools; it’s the broader community that has to foot the bill for whatever we decide our budget’s going to be.”
It’s a budget that would require a series of job cuts within the ACSD, some achieved through attrition and others through layoffs. The list of cuts includes eight paraprofessionals, four MUHS teachers, three MUMS teachers, three elementary educators (through retirements) and 2.6 teaching vacancies that won’t be filled. Also on the list is a position that is half of full-time equivalence (FTE) in the ACSD central office.
Hardy stressed the proposed job cuts are “in schools and grades with declining enrollment.”
Overall, ACSD is expected to lose 51 students next year, and a total of 110 over the next five years. ACSD’s enrollment has declined by more than 21 percent since 2000. Most of the state’s districts are seeing a similar decline, as Vermont’s population continues to gray. Fewer students means less state aid.
At the same time, the fiscal year 2019 budget would add some resources at schools — like Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary — where enrollment is either stable or bucking the statewide trend. Mary Hogan is in line for an additional second grade teacher this fall.
Hardy encouraged the ACSD to create, with community input, a plan outlining financial priorities for the next two or three years. That plan will likely include a reduction of 1.6 FTE principal positions beginning in fiscal year 2020, Hardy said.
CONSOLIDATION?
She also suggested the board revisit the concept of having Middlebury Union Middle School absorb member-towns’ sixth-graders. This could, in turn, prompt the ACSD to consider which — if any — of the district’s nine school buildings could be put out of service. Mary Hogan Elementary is currently the only ACSD elementary school serving more than 100 students. Mary Hogan, MUMS and a few other district schools have the capacity to serve additional students if the ACSD were to ever consider a school consolidation. The consolidation process is clearly laid out in Vermont’s Act 46, the law that recently led to school governance unification and pre-K-to-grade-12 budgeting in the ACSD and districts throughout the state. School consolidation would require, among other things, a majority vote by residents in the affected communities.
“We have to reinvent the ACSD now,” Hardy said.
“We need to view all of the options through a lens of educational excellence, equity and fiscal responsibility,” she added.
Board Chairman Peter Conlon of Cornwall said the ACSD has hired a consultant to help its master planning committee “frame the questions we want to go to the community with … as we discuss the future of the district and how we envision it. That includes everything from grade configuration to school facilities, to more abstract concepts.”
Board member Jason Duquette-Hoffman of Middlebury encouraged the panel to move from what he described as a “reactionary” style of budgeting to one that is more “forward thinking” and that aligns with ACSD’s broader goals for excellence in education.
“What’s the point of doing a strategic planning process if we’re not using that as a foundation for all the work we are doing?” Duquette-Hoffman said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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