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Letter to the editor: Creative approaches needed for school-funding issue

On Jan. 28 a very good piece appeared in this paper by Andy Kirkaldy relating to the Addison Northwest School District (ANWSD) budget recommendations. The focus was a suggested 5.6 percent tax increase in the five Vergennes area municipalities for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. The budget proposed by the ANWSD school board would increase the collected property tax to cover the spending plan of a little over $22 million. Key points of the proposal included but were not limited to: declining student census/enrollment, a complex state revenue support system, cost per student, and homestead rates. Before I go any further into my view, this piece is not to criticize the work completed on very difficult budgets. The intent of the discussion is to review reasonable alternative approaches, other than increased taxation, that are commonplace in all other sectors of private industry and municipal fiscal operations.
To a greater degree, the district and state have experienced revenue generation swings and issues over the past decade. To add complexity the state has also experienced a declining population and reduction in the work force as residents leave for better opportunities and living conditions. The result impacts and influences the general movement of commerce within communities. The greater Vergennes and Middlebury area has not been immune to these influences of financial discord. A fair number of businesses have closed and shuttered their doors unable to sustain in the economy of the area. Other private residents could not afford the cyclic increases in property tax as the influences of the business and commerce sectors have made their balance sheets not work in their favor of their domestic budgets. The loss of commerce directly impacts the flow of monies in and through the local economy, through taxation generation, payroll and exchange of goods and services. A drive down Main Street will demonstrate this assertion.
The challenges for some of these businesses comes in the cost of doing business in Addison County and the state of Vermont. The action of adding to the tax burden is often the tipping point and the reason for business closure, and ending hopes of a successful business career for many small entities. Compounding the equation, post business closure, is the laying off of staff (unemployed) and the loss of purchases the closed business had with vendors that supported their operations. This spiraling vortex cycle continues to present itself with further social and economic declines. Burdening residents with an increasing school budget in an area experiencing economic stagnation and decline may not be the optimum pathway for the 2019-2020 season. There are alternatives to consider and employ, but will take leadership and calculated decision making for the best interest of the region as a whole.
Municipal organization, like our school district, create operational budgets to function under from year to year. What our area has seen recently are the boards working harder and harder to respond to the state and community asks to reduce spending. This work should not go unrecognized and the board’s long hours and commitments are much appreciated. What is realized now are the tough decisions that will be required as the size of the communities’ wealth is shrinking, the size of the community (and state) population is shrinking, and the size of the student body (enrollment) is shrinking. Similar to our communities’ business and other municipal operation, hard choices in downsizing are on the discussion table to implementation. These include but are not limited to deeper cuts in staffing and services, this would include consolidating and closing some of these academic institutions in the ANWSD district.
There are examples of similar vital community services that have successfully taken the consolidation approach and moved away from the duplication of service aspect of maintaining their operations. The health care industry in this state and nation has long ago realized to provide services to the community in a limited resource environment, consolidation is the correct approach and selection for long-term sustainment and financial fairness to the community as a whole. The ANWSD district has observed continuous declining enrollment and student census in the elementary schools. Regrettably, the operational cost does not decrease. Consolidating the elementary schools is a reasonable consideration versus increasing the taxation burden of the area already struggling to survive. As the cost of doing the business of public education also increases it is fair to ask this sector to do the same. From both an academic and business perspective it is a rational option, though the emotional attachment and sentiment of closing a school is not lost on this consideration.
With this consideration there is an opportunity for our local senators and representatives to speak to area revenue generation. A healthy local economy supports an overall healthy balanced community. At this juncture our community balance is tipped heavily in taxation and deficit and not growth, prosperity and a middle ground. Our lawmakers have the best vantage point to make change and influence collective actions within our communities and turn the declining vortex course around for the enhancement of all. I am certain I will have critics with a strong visceral response to the previously rendered recommendations for alternative options to further taxation, and there should be. This is the essence of a democracy. However, a healthy community benefits from all sectors operating and functioning at the best of their capacity. We are currently seeing an imbalance as the school district is asking, while others are finding creative solutions to economic and business related challenges.
As a community we can provide a balance of services and economic prosperity and break the declining vortex of economic bleakness. Not reacting in a reasonable collaborative approach will continue to perpetuate the cycle, should that be appealing pathway for us. Reach out to your elected public servants and express your views and opinions, they are very good listeners and do good work for the community as a whole. The change from heavy taxation of school budgets can be successfully completed with alternative and perhaps difficult decision by the community leadership. Admittedly, this is in the best interest for the whole of the state/community and not limited sectors.
We can change the current imbalance with reasonable fiscal responsibility and selecting choices that have short- and long-range planning as a focal point. I would like to thank Andy Kirkaldy for presenting his article in a fair and unbiased manner. He articulated the salient points for a challenging issue. This presentation of consolidation and downsizing is a reasonable approach that can be successful implemented.
Doug Sutton
Vergennes

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