Ferrisburgh board urges opposition to school closure

FERRISBURGH — The Ferrisburgh selectboard is urging town residents to oppose the Addison Northwest School District’s proposal to close Ferrisburgh Central School.
“Your selectboard under the leadership of Vice Chair Jessica James voted tonight to send out a letter to all Ferrisburgh residents urging them to oppose closing FCS,” selectboard member Clark Hinsdale wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday night.
The Independent obtained a copy of that letter just before deadline.
“What the (school) district is proposing is more than school planning; it is community and regional planning,” wrote selectboard members Jim Benoit, Hinsdale, James and Mike “Red” Muir in the letter, which will be mailed on Oct. 31. “Only a collaborative approach will help us turn the current crisis into an opportunity to better serve our students and our communities.”
The ANWSD, which currently oversees four schools — Addison Central School (ACS), Ferrisburgh Central School (FCS), Vergennes Union Elementary School and Vergennes Union High School — is asking voters in Addison and Ferrisburgh to approve its plan to close ACS and FCS on June 30, 2020.
Voters in those towns will head to their respective polling places next Tuesday, Nov. 5, to decide the question via Australian ballot.
“The cost of education in the ANWSD is increasing at an unsustainable rate,” wrote ANWSD officials in a flyer the district recently mailed to residents of both towns. “Student enrollment is declining, resulting in less revenue, but expenses continue to grow. Keeping open all four school buildings in the district next year would result in an estimated union school district tax rate increase of $0.18.”
This is more than twice as much as the school district tax rate increase that was required for the current fiscal year’s budget, they pointed out.
Last March ANWSD voters approved that budget by just six votes.
The Ferrisburgh selectboard has been analyzing the fiscal impacts associated with the proposed closure of FCS in order to provide residents with as much information as possible, they said.
In its letter to residents the board lists what it sees as four important facts:
1. “If we take back the school campus with the associated $850,000 in bonded indebtedness, annual maintenance, and associated costs it will raise our municipal taxes 12–16 percent (additional 4 or 5 cents on the tax rate).”
2. “Vergennes Union Elementary School lacks the parking, playing fields, and classroom configuration to serve as our only district elementary school. We have been provided with a list of capital projects for VUES, but no capital budget or impact on our future tax rate resulting from those improvements.”
3. “We have not been provided with multi-year operating budgets associated with the different scenarios examined by the Addison Northwest School District, so we have no factual basis to know which scenario is best.”
4. “As a result of our research, we cannot guarantee that closing FCS and assuming ownership of the school will save Ferrisburgh taxpayers ANY money. If we accept the District’s assertion that closing the two schools will save taxpayers 2 cents on the education tax rate, then the increase in the Ferrisburgh town tax rate cited above will more than offset the school tax decrease, and your taxes will go up anyway.”
Later in the letter, the selectboard suggested a wider-angle approach to the enrollment/cost issue.
“Shouldn’t we work with our neighbors in Addison County to look at the bigger picture?” they asked, referring to similar discussions that have begun to take shape in the Addison Central School District and the Mount Abraham Unified School District. “Couldn’t combining many of the functions of three Central Offices provide us with significant administrative savings?”
The Independent spoke with ANWSD board chair Sue Rakowski before a copy of the letter had become available.

Rakowski explained that in the event that a town votes to approve closing its school, that town will have the option of buying the building from the school district — for one dollar — but the town is not obligated to do so.
The cost savings the district has projected in the event that FCS closes assume that the district retains ownership of that building, she added.
Rakowski also pointed out that the school district currently does not have the authority to repurpose either school for non-educational purposes — such as hosting a day care center or housing the district’s Central Offices — unless voters first grant permission to close that school.
According to the district’s articles of unification, the ANWSD will have the authority to close the schools without residents’ approval on July 1, 2021.
Ferrisburgh selectboard vice chair Jessica James explained the board’s reasoning in a phone interview with the Independent.
“It became clear from the community response that the process has felt rushed, for Ferrisburgh,” she said. Regardless of the vote outcome, she added, “we need to work on a better communication model between the town, the district and regional planning.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

The Independent received the following clarifications from ANWSD board chairperson Sue Rakowski after this story went to print:
• The district has no planned capital projects. We continue to research potential needs at Ferrisburgh Central School pertaining to the building’s moisture/mold issue. The Ferrisburgh selectboard refers to a “list of capital projects for VUES (Vergennes Union Elementary School).” I believe they are referring to this facility status update:….
• VUES has 22 full-size classrooms. PreK–grade 4 for all ANWSD students would require 17 classrooms. The five additional classroom spaces would be available for art, music and interventions.
• The district business office is unable to create multi-year operating budgets associated with different scenarios because we do not receive revenue numbers or other necessary information from the state this far in advance and decisions surrounding programming needs/priorities (i.e. which educational areas to reduce and which areas need more investment) have not yet been made. We have shared a 10-year projection of expenses and how those expenses would be decreased by closure of one or two buildings:
• Ferrisburgh is under no obligation to assume ownership of the building even if voters choose to “close the school for use as an elementary school.” If the district maintains ownership of a “closed” school building, then the district can pursue alternative use of the building, such as for childcare, office space, etc.
• The district has no need for outside financial consultants since we already employ financial professionals who produce accurate and verifiable information. The work of our business office is vetted annually through audit by an independent firm. Additionally, there is no line item in our budget to pay outside consultants.
• The idea of working with other Addison County school districts is valid. Currently ANWSD and (the Mount Abraham Unified School District) share more resources than many other districts statewide. We share athletic teams, transportation for students attending alternative education centers, and our meal programs. Entering into a shared governance model with Mount Abe and/or (the Addison Central School District) could be explored, if the communities and the other district(s) are willing.

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