ANWSD school closures vote remains unclear

FERRISBURGH/ADDISON — After selectboards in Addison and Ferrisburgh early last week declined a school board request to hold votes on closing the elementary schools in those towns, the future of that vote proposal was only partially clarified by Friday afternoon. 
What remains clear is that many residents in both towns are deeply skeptical of the Addison Northwest School District’s proposal. 
On Tuesday, Oct. 1, both towns’ selectboards declined to honor the Addison Northwest School District board’s request to warn a Nov. 5 vote for the purpose of asking Addison and Ferrisburgh residents if they would accept closing their town schools. 
The ANWSD Articles of Unification require permission from each town’s residents before either the Addison Central School or Ferrisburgh Central School can be closed. The school board can do so on its own after July 2021. 
But on Wednesday the Vermont Secretary of State’s Director of Elections and Campaign Finance, Will Senning, issued an opinion that the selectboards did not have the right to refuse to warn the vote. 
Senning cited 16 VSA 722, which reads in part, “The functions of the legislative branch of each preexisting school district in warning meetings and conducting elections of unified union school district board members shall be performed by the corresponding board of alderpersons of a city or city council, (or) the selectboard of a town.” 
In an email to the Independent, Senning wrote, “The Legislature enacted this language and chose to use the word ‘shall,’ making it clear that the selectboards do not have the discretion to choose not perform this role.” 
On Friday Ferrisburgh Selectboard Chairman Rick Ebel called an emergency meeting of the Ferrisburgh selectboard for 11:30 a.m. Saturday in order to warn the meeting and meet the timetable requested by the ANWSD board. 
That decision followed a statement on Thursday evening from ANWSD Board Chairwoman Sue Rakowski, who said the ANWSD board expected the town selectboards to conform to state election law and warn the votes in a timely manner. 
“It is our expectation that the selectboards of Addison and Ferrisburgh will fulfill their statutory obligation to warn the Nov. 5 votes, as requested by the school board on Sept. 27,” Rakowski wrote. 
As of the Independent’s Friday afternoon deadline for this edition, the Addison selectboard’s plans remained unknown. Calls and emails to Addison Selectboard Chairman Jeff Kauffman on Thursday and Friday morning were not returned, and Vice Chairman Peter Briggs could not be reached by phone on Friday morning. 
Addison Town Clerk Marilla Webb said she had spoken to Kauffman on Friday morning, but by about 1 p.m. on Friday had not heard more. 
Webb said she had contacted Senning about proper warning procedures, and Senning told her the ANWSD board also had to sign the warning. The ANWSD office said Rakowski is authorized to sign documents on behalf of the board if they have received board approval, and a board quorum will not need to gather to sign either the Ferrisburgh or Addison warnings. 
The ANWSD board hopes to close both schools and educate district students in kindergarten through Grade 4 at Vergennes Union Elementary School and create a new middle school for grades 5-8 at Vergennes Union High School. A second option could educate the youngest grades at Ferrisburgh Central School. 
Per board estimates the first option could save $2.2 million in the first year, while one of the second options could save $1.4 million. The board insists future savings also would accrue. 
Without the closures, school board members said, it would cost the district about $1 million to maintain current programs next year, while creating much higher taxes than they believe residents would agree to pay. 
High school programming would be most at risk, they claim, including athletics, arts, World Language, AP courses, the school’s Walden program, afterschool offerings, and transportation. 
Before declining to warn the votes last week and being fully aware of the legal obligations, the Ferrisburgh selectboard had a legal opinion that it did not have to immediately warn the vote, while the Addison selectboard chairman said its members and many residents had too many questions to move forward. 
ANWSD officials say the votes must be held in early November to give them time to prepare a budget by January to be published in Town Meeting Day warnings for a March 3 vote. They note a petition could be filed for a revote after a November vote, and cannot craft a budget until they have certainty on which schools are open. 
Ebel, a retired career education administrator, on Thursday said he hopes ANWSD officials can produce a summary sheet that better explains the goals and benefits of what has been a controversial proposal and its various options. 
“Ideally there would be a page, a link, that would summarize, and there is nothing like that,” he said. “From my work experience I don’t think it would be a hard thing to do.” 
Read a story about how some ANWSD residents are pushing back on school closure proposals. Click here,
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@

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