ANWSD board to seek input on district challenges

VERGENNES — The members of the Addison Northwest School District (ANWSD) Board are looking for help as they confront the same tough question as are school boards around Vermont — how should they best manage their school system as both student enrollment and state funding drops.
Specifically, the board is seeking input and ideas from community members this late spring and summer on how to meet those challenges.
Last week the board sent out a press release saying its approach of the past two years probably cannot work in the future. On each of the past two Town Meeting Days voters have backed level-funded budgets to support education and building maintenance at the four ANWSD schools.
In 2016, the tax impact was favorable — property tax rates in most of the five towns dropped. But in 2017, ANWSD rates spiked upward as per-pupil spending remained high, fewer students enrolled, and the statewide property tax rose.
ANWSD board members see students thriving, but according to their press release they also foresee that tax trend continuing even though, because of inflation, they have made cuts to reach level-funded budgets.
“Our students continue to excel in areas both academic and extracurricular. The community and camaraderie that exists in our schools is evident in the photos and stories highlighted on our Facebook page,” the press release states.
“However, we believe due to declining enrollment and above-average per pupil costs, maintaining a level-funded budget for (Fiscal Year 2020) and beyond would result in unsustainable tax increases. We must find a more efficient way. The board is committed to gathering input and ideas from our community to inform these decisions.”
The press release mentions a few ideas the board batted around at an April 17 retreat that will probably be floated to the public as points of discussion:
“Questions developed by the board include:
1. Could reconfiguring our K-8 schools to house grade-level clusters (lower/upper elementary) lower costs, give us more flexibility in terms of staffing as well as provide optimal learning environments?
2. How do we maintain Town schools with annual resource reductions?
3. Could enhancing partnerships with neighboring districts be beneficial?
4. Should we allow for property tax increases in order to maintain level programming?
5. How can we work with Vergennes area groups on economic development that will encourage people to move here?
6. Can we move the Central Office into a district owned building?”
Board Chairwoman Sue Rakowski said the board at its May 14 meeting at 6 p.m. at Ferrisburgh Central School and the board’s community engagement committee at a May 17 meeting to be held at 5:30 p.m. in the Bixby Library will refine questions and further plan outreach.
“We’re going to add a couple of follow-up questions to the public to find out what people think we should do moving forward. Because it’s no secret that we’re in a crunch,” Rakowski said, adding “the community engagement committee is really beginning to plan some events. We’re trying to figure out the wording of some questions to put out and plan some events.”
Rakowski acknowledged that some interpreted the press release to mean the board was simply eyeing more staff cuts or even school closures, but she said that was not the board’s intent.
“Honestly, that’s why we want to hear from people. What can we do? We’re losing students. We’ve level-funded the budget the past couple years. But even level-funding the budget when you lose students taxes go up,” Rakowski said. “We don’t have the solution. We’re looking for ideas. It would be great if we could get a lot more students.”
For example, Rakowski said reconfiguring the schools could mean moving 6th-graders to Vergennes Union High School, or creating “grade clusters” at the elementary schools.
Those grade clusters, she said, could “ensure more equity” for all elementary school students because currently a couple ANWSD elementary schools have to use multi-grade classrooms due to smaller student counts at some grade levels.
Both approaches have pluses and minuses, Rakowski said, noting greater transportation distances if grade clusters were put in place, while if 6th-graders were moved there would be fewer elementary-school students at the same time greater efficiencies were created at VUHS.
“There’s pros and cons about everything, and that’s why we’re trying to begin a discussion,” she said.
Both Rakowski and the press release noted these issues are not unique to ANWSD. 
“We want to stress to the community that this is a challenge being faced by school districts and communities across the state,” the press release stated. “We have many assets in our schools and our communities and it is our goal on the ANWSD school board to think proactively and strategically about our future.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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