ANWSD makes cuts to control spending

VERGENNES — Vergennes-area residents on Tuesday will weigh in on a $21.1 million Addison Northwest School District budget that reduces current spending by $10,000, eliminates three teachers and about four other full-time jobs, reduces the hours of two principals, and could raise residential school tax rates by about 8 cents in the five district towns — a year after rates dropped by more than that in three of them.
When the ANWSD board approved that budget in January it gave Superintendent JoAn Canning and her administrative team leeway on how to make the numbers work.
Canning said the teaching cuts are being made at the elementary school level because Vergennes Union High School has borne the brunt of most recent budget reductions and because enrollment drops at Ferrisburgh and Addison central schools allow classes there to be combined. FCS enrollment is expected to dip to 126 or 127 from 144 this year and 151 last year. The number of pupils at Addison are projected to drop next year to 61, which is consistent with the last few years, but low compared to the 100 students ACS had a decade or so ago.
The loss of teaching jobs does not mean changes to educational offerings at those schools, she said, but rather an attempt to align the number of teachers to the number of students at each school.
“We’re going to be able to maintain our programs,” Canning said.
Because the three teachers with the least seniority in ANWSD work at Vergennes Union Elementary School, two FCS teachers and one ACS teacher will move into those VUES positions.
It’s possible retirement decisions made by district employees next month will allow some positions to be eliminated by attrition instead of layoffs.
“If any of our teachers want to retire that’s certainly our preference if we have to make reductions,” Canning said.  
At least one or two teachers have also declared retirement plans, according to Canning. 
“Who is going where remains to be seen,” she said. “I have gotten some volunteers for transferring, but I can’t give you any more details related to that. But I was pleased at least a couple people stepped forward.”
The cuts to the principals’ hours — Beth Brodie at FCS and Travis Park at ACS — sparked the biggest reaction at the Monday ANWSD meeting devoted to the budget and the proposed $7.63 million school improvement bond that will also appear on Tuesday’s ballot.
That measure will be revenue-neutral due to many energy improvements at all four schools, officials say, and will include security measures, as reported in the Feb. 26 Independent.
The budget calls for a reduction in the two principals’ jobs from full-time to 80 percent. Canning said the principals will work full-time during the school year and take summers off.
Canning said ACS previously has operated with a part-time principal even when it had a higher student count, and also pointed to a statewide memo from Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe suggesting that only schools of 179 students or more should have full-time principals. She also noted long-range plans in the Addison Central School District call for three smaller elementary schools to share two principals.
“According to Rebecca Holcombe, when you’ve got a school of 179 kids you can justify a full-time principal. But when you’re got a school of 61 students it’s a little difficult to justify a full-time principal,” Canning said. “And Ferrisburgh is also declining.”
Ferrisburgh parent Mary Neffinger said she and others in that community are concerned it’ll be difficult to attract candidates for a less-than-full-time job.
“I know that many of my fellow FCS parents left the budget meeting last night feeling pretty dejected,” Neffinger wrote in an email. “There is a certain cost of doing business when it comes to our principals. We will not be able to attract quality candidates for our school if our district can’t provide stable positions. Strong school leadership correlates with strong academic achievement and I’m hopeful that we can work with the board and the superintendent to come to a better solution.”
An FCS Parent-Teachers Organization memo also expresses concern about the issue, although it also supports the budget because “a ‘No’ vote typically only results in further cuts.” 
Canning said she understands the frustration, but added ANWSD must also be mindful of taxpayers and per-pupil costs.
“When you have a school that has a declining enrollment you just can’t justify the same level of teachers that you’ve had, and supports and services. Something’s got to change,” she said. 
Canning’s message to parents is, “I am hearing you,” and that if grants come in that allow the district to, for example, increase hours for the principals by assigning them curricular work over the summer, that route will be considered.
Other new details include periods during the summer where operations at ACS and FCS will be briefly suspended in order to save money, Canning said. The VUHS assistant principal position will also go to 80 percent, a move that had been announced earlier, as had reductions equivalent to three special education aides, a 60-percent administrative post, and a 20-percent nursing position.
The spending plan also assumes using $650,000 of what a draft audit stated was a district-wide fund balance of about $1.63 million at the end of the 2017 school year to offset what otherwise would be a larger tax rate increase, according to ANWSD officials.
The board intends to use the remainder of the surplus to retire food-service debts at all four ANWSD schools and to create a “Fiscal 2018-2019 Capital Projects Fund.”
School officials estimate passage of the budget could increase the ANWSD homestead tax rate by about 8 cents, depending on final legislative decisions and taking into account local Common Levels of Appraisals (CLAs). They caution the Legislature could adjust the statewide tax rate, now estimated at 9.4 cents, at the end of the session.
Any increase will follow a decrease in 2017 in three ANWSD communities and small increases in the other two:
•  Addison’s homestead school tax rate dropped 13.25 cents in 2017.
•  Ferrisburgh homestead rate decreased by almost 14 cents in 2017.
•  Panton’s homestead rate rose by 0.59 of a cent in 2017.
•  The Vergennes homestead rate rose by 2.13 cents in 2017, or about 1.3 percent.
•  Waltham’s homestead rate dropped 10.61 cents in 2017.
A homestead tax rate increase of about 8 cents would mean around $80 of additional taxes per $100,000 of assessed value for those property owners who pay based solely on the value of their homes.
About two-thirds of area residents pay based on their income and would get prebates.
Canning noted a new school funding plan has just been floated, but she believes — and certainly hopes — that it will not take effect until 2020, thus allowing voters to make informed financial decisions next week.
As for the ANWSD budget, Canning said she believes it appropriately balances the needs of taxpayers and students.
“I want to assure the community that quality is not going to suffer in this budget,” she said. “This is a responsible budget. I certainly hope people will be in agreement with that.”

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