Vergennes- and Bristol-area towns narrowly approve school spending

VERGENNES / BRISTOL — Residents in two of the county’s three consolidated school districts, encompassing 10 towns, on Tuesday approved their respective school district budgets by a total of 20 votes out of more than 3,600 ballots cast.
The five Addison Northwest School District communities — Vergennes, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Addison and Waltham — backed a 2019-2020 budget of $22,139,341 to fund the four ANWSD schools and the district’s share of Hannaford Career Center, but only by a 672-665 margin.
Separately, voters in the Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD), which comprises the towns of Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro, very narrowly passed a $31 million budget for the coming school year, 1,140–1,127.
The winning margins — 7 votes, or 0.5 percent, in ANWSD and 13 votes, or 0.6 percent,  in MAUSD — are well within the range that would allow for a recount, should one be requested, according to the Vermont Secretary of State’s website.
ANWSD officials said the spending plan approved Tuesday will preserve offerings at district schools and increase spending by 4.89 percent over the current level.
That increase comes after four years of modest budgetary increases as the district enrollment has declined from 919 students three years ago to 892 currently. The current budget called for a $10,000 decrease, while this spending plan will add a little more than $1 million.
Over the past four years the annualized increase is about 1.2 percent.
But the tax impact is greater because of the declining enrollment, even though many costs are fixed or rising. Officials are estimating ANWSD tax rates could increase by 9.65 cents, although they caution lawmakers in Montpelier could still make changes. A late change last year lowered estimated increases by about 6 cents.
Based on current estimates, if a 9.65-cent hike results, most ANWSD homeowners who pay on the full value of their property could be looking at a roughly $96 increase per $100,000 of assessed value.
Those who pay based on their incomes, typically at least two-thirds of homeowners in most Addison County towns, would receive rebates and not feel the full impact of a tax increase.
ANWSD Board Chairwoman Sue Rakowski said board members are happy with the result, while realizing the implications of the close vote and residents’ worries about taxes.
“The board is grateful that it passed. We understand that increased taxes are concerning to voters,” Rakowski said.
As for the possibilities of a recount or petitioned revote, Rakowski said board members would prefer to focus on their plans to bring residents into the decision-making process on what they expect will be even tougher choices in the next budget cycle.
“At this point we’re just waiting to see what happens. There’s no action on any of those fronts the board can take,” Rakowski said. “I would say that there are difficult decisions that are going to need to be made in order to sustain K-through-12 education in our communities in a way that’s affordable. I know that the board is going to be entering into planning for the following year fiscal year 2021, immediately, and inviting the community into the process.”
Rakowski said the ANWSD’s strategic planning committee met Tuesday to “define action steps with deadlines” to create a plan to involve residents in making upcoming budget decisions, with emphases in working on how to address declining enrollment and how to structure the district.
“I think it’s clear we have a divided community, and the ability to sustain increased taxes is limited, and the board respects that. Certainly we hope these results stand. With the budget passed it allows us time to move on and address other issues. It allows us time to move on and plan for next year’s budget,” Rakowski said. “If the budget fails then we go back into the process of redrafting the budget, and in this particular case it would result in the impact of reducing student programming.”
ANWSD officials cited three primary drivers behind the spending increase of 4.89 percent despite some staff reductions:
•  A 13-percent increase in the cost of the district’s transportation contract.
•  An 11-percent rise in the cost of providing teachers’ health-insurance benefits.
•  A yet-to-be determined boost in employee salaries. ANWSD is currently negotiating with both its teachers and support staff unions for new deals.
ANWSD voters backed by wider margins five other articles, one of which will mean fewer articles in the future:
The first asked voters to allocate $50,000 from a surplus from the past fiscal year to the ANWSD capital improvement fund.  It passed, 918-412. ANWSD tax estimates released assumed passage of this article.  
The next three articles dealt with the kind of routine business the former Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Board and residents handled with floor votes at annual supervisory union meetings.
•  An article giving the ANWSD board permission to borrow money in advance of property-tax receipts and state funding passed, 911-425.
•  An article to make the district’s annual report available electronically, 1,071-257.
•  An article to approve board members’ annual stipends passed, 893-439.
The sixth article asked voters if they would like fewer Town Meeting Day ballots in the future by allowing decisions on the three previous articles to be made at annual ANWSD meetings instead of via Australian balloting. It passed, 885-438.
Back in the Mount Abraham Unified School District, administrators are very confident in the final results, said Superintendent Patrick Reen.
The vote was recounted multiple times Tuesday night, producing positive margins of 2, 9 and 12, before the final official count was announced, said Karen Wheeler, executive assistant to the superintendent.
“We wish the budget had passed with a larger margin, but we’re glad for the opportunity to continue doing our work,” Reen said.
Given recent tensions in the district — 20 voters rejected the MAUSD’s annual report at its annual meeting last month — officials are considering the possibility that the budget vote may face a challenge from disgruntled 5-Town residents.
According to Bristol Town Clerk Jen Stetson Myers, that would require submitting a petition containing the signatures of at least 5 percent of the entire school district, within 30 days of the original vote.
Reen estimated the MAUSD has an electorate of roughly 8,000; so a petition would need around 400 signatures.
In the meantime, Reen said, the district has heard the concerns of 5-Town residents and vows to take those concerns into consideration with the next budget.
“Their voices have been heard,” he said.
An additional ballot article asking voters to approve the creation of a Capital Reserve Fund, using past surplus funds, passed much more easily, 1,514–756.
On Town Meeting Day, voters also re-elected the following representatives to the MAUSD board, all for three-year terms:
•  Andrew Morton (New Haven).
•  Liz Sayre (Bristol).
•  Krista Siringo (Bristol).
Two open seats to the board were filled by Kristin Blanchette of Monkton, who ran unopposed, and Elizabeth Ratta of Lincoln, who won what turned out to be a contest between write-in candidates.
A third (open) seat on Bristol’s delegation to the board did not earn enough write-in votes to produce a winner. The Bristol selectboard must now appoint someone to the seat for a one-year term. That person will then have to run for election next year to keep their seat.

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