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ANWSD eyes reconfiguration of Addison Central School

Addison gave us a clear message with their vote that they don’t want to close their school as an elementary school (and) over the last several years they’ve also given us a clear message that they don’t want to pay for what it costs right now. We don’t get Yes votes from Addison residents in general.
— School board member Bill Clark

VERGENNES — Faced with rising costs that would result in a tax penalty imposed by the state if nothing is done, the Addison Northwest School District board on Monday discussed three budget options for next year. One would make no substantial changes in the configuration of the three elementary and one high school (“Do Nothing”), one would repurpose Addison Central School and send Addison kids to another building, and one would make cuts to the “Do Nothing” budget.
At the Dec. 9 meeting the board ended by asking if a fourth path might be possible — a hybrid of two existing proposals.
The budget planning comes after residents in Addison and Ferrisburgh last month voted overwhelmingly reject the board’s proposal to close both Addison Central School and Ferrisburgh Central School.
The board asked administrators to work up a scenario that would combine an “Under Threshold” budget with a “ACS Reconfiguration” budget.
The “ACS Reconfiguration” budget, which would involve repurposing Addison Central School for alternative education next year and sending children who live in Addison to other district elementary schools, is currently estimated to come in at more than $197,000 below the anticipated state-mandated spending threshold.
According to ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule, the budget would:
• eliminate nine professional staff, one administrator and one administrative assistant.
• reduce food service costs and cut half of a custodial job.
The “Under Threshold” budget reduces the “Do Nothing” budget by about $500,000 so that school spending would come in below the spending threshold.
This budget would:
• eliminate elementary sports programs, the Vergennes crossing guard, Director of Guidance position at Vergennes Union High School (VUHS), a 0.3 FTE (full-time equivalent) VUHS world language teaching positions, one intervention services position, one elementary school administrator (leaving two positions to administer three elementary schools), and Central Office reception/summer office support.
• reduce the Fusion program at Ferrisburgh Central School (FCS), VUHS field trips and supplies for one year, Vergennes bus transportation by one bus, and clinical services provided by Counseling Services of Addison County.
Many of these cuts would undo services that the ANWSD has gone about growing purposefully for the benefit of students, Soule said at the meeting. The Director of Guidance position, especially, would be a critical need going forward, she explained.
When asked why such a critical position was suggested for elimination, ANWSD board chair Sue Rakowski explained that the district was running out of options.
“There are no ‘other things’ that are less important or would have less impact on students and the district,” she told the Independent.
In her Superintendent’s Report, Soule explained why she thought repurposing Addison Central School was the most efficient model.
“Keeping the Addison Central School in operation ‘as is’ will be at the expense of the quality of programming elsewhere,” she wrote. “Reducing our budget by repurposing (ACS) ensures that these costs do not continue to compound and grow — requiring even more painful reductions next year.”
The board voted 7–2 in favor of requesting more information about a hybrid budget scenario. Two board members abstained.

FEELING TORN
School board member Bill Clark of Ferrisburgh had mixed feelings about repurposing ACS, he said.
“Addison gave us a clear message with their vote that they don’t want to close their school as an elementary school,” he said.
But, he pointed out, “over the last several years they’ve also given us a clear message that they don’t want to pay for what it costs right now. We don’t get Yes votes from Addison residents in general.”
Clark confessed that he didn’t know how to reconcile the recent vote with the town’s history of more fiscal-oriented voting.
Furthermore, he added, he has spoken with Addison families who say they would like their children to go to some school other than ACS.
“Maybe the town likes the idea of keeping it the way it was, but even many of the families within the school would like more choice.”
Clark encouraged district stakeholders to challenge the board’s thinking.
“Fill our inboxes,” he said.
Board vice-chair Tom Borchert (Waltham) said he had felt sick all day.
Borchert said he believed that the ACS Reconfiguration plan was best for the school district, but fidelity to the democratic process would indicate supporting one of the other options.
Borchert abstained from voting on the matter.

APPLES TO ORANGES?
Later in the meeting, board member John Stroup cast student equity in financial terms.
“Back in the beginning when we were really talking about the elementary schools … we estimated that we were going to pay about $2,800 more per student at Addison, as opposed to Vergennes (elementary). We could be spending that money for all of our kids. I’d like to know more about the per-pupil spending at the schools because that’s an issue of equity. It is inequitable right now.”
When the Independent inquired about this number, Rakowski and ANWSD Business Manager Elizabeth Jennings pointed to a document titled “FY 21 Projected Cost Per Student – ‘Do Nothing Budget,’” which indicates that per-pupil spending at FCS is almost the same as at ACS — $2,692 more than at VUES — a number Stroup neglected to mention when citing concerns about equity.
The Independent asked district officials if they anticipated that Addison-resident children would be $2,800 less expensive to educate if they attend VUES but they did not directly respond.
In addition to her replies to various other questions, Rakowski emailed the Independent another document, titled “ANWSD total expenses by location — FY20 with Anticipated Enrollment Counts.” Though these numbers, too, are dated, they indicate, for instance, that ACS per-pupil transportation costs were $2,336 more than at VUES. At FCS they were $2,031 more per pupil.
Jennings was patient and diligent in answering the Independent’s many questions about these and other numbers.
“The reality is, some of the comparisons of these worksheets allocate other district-wide costs by enrollment similar to how supervisory unions used to assess union schools in their districts years ago,” she said in an email. “This allocation method leans towards an inability to compare actual costs by individual school locations.”

CENTRAL OFFICE
Also at Monday night’s meeting, Borchert, in his role as chair of the Facilities Committee, announced that the committee recommends continuing to rent commercial building space for the district’s Central Office — at least for two years.
The committee agrees in principal that the Central Office should move into one of the ANWSD buildings eventually, he said, but it doesn’t make sense to do it right now.
They cited the following reasoning:
• It’s still unclear which space would be best.
• Moving the Central Office could cost upwards of $200,000.
• The human cost, in terms of work disruption, would be substantial.
• It will be better to make programmatic decisions first, and space-related ones afterward.
• It will cost less money over the next two years to keep renting the space.
The committee estimates that continuing to rent would cost $60,000 a year.
“I’m really disappointed,” Clark said in response. “People are concerned about that cost. We would’ve moved grades 5/6 to VUHS and were perfectly happy to say, ‘Well, don’t worry the plans will emerge after we make the decision, we have to trust the process.’ Now it feels like we’re saying, ‘Well, we don’t want to do that for the district office,’ and so it doesn’t feel right to me.”
Vergennes resident Jena Santa Maria also took umbrage with the committee’s recommendation.
“You can’t move teachers, students or administration without a plan, and Addison and Ferrisburgh came out to the polls and told you that — overwhelmingly,” she said during public comment. “If the Central Office, which is comprised of highly educated professional working people, cannot endure a move without plans, we cannot in good faith ask our smallest and arguably our most vulnerable population to endure a similar move. These are 5- to 12-year-olds in their formative years. If, as stated tonight, that we as a district won’t be settled in two years, why are we reconfiguring kids for the next school year?”

JANUARY
The board has two meetings before it has to formally adopt a budget, Rakowski said. Their next meeting is Jan. 13.
In the meantime, a group called the Rural School Alliance is circulating petitions with the hope of amending the ANWSD’s articles of unification in a way that would eliminate the district’s authority to close or reconfigure any school without voter approval.
The group plans to submit their petitions, which call for a district-wide vote on the amendments, on Jan. 3
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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