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ANWSD cuts budget by 1.3%, foresees tax hike

With all respect to all the parents we have in this community, it feels unfair that Addison is getting ‘repurposed,’ and Ferrisburgh gets to keep everything.
— ANWSD board member Laurie Childers

VERGENNES — After months of intense public debate over how to address sharply rising costs and steadily declining enrollment, the Addison Northwest School District board has proposed a fiscal year 2021 budget that would reduce spending by more than 1% over the current year, avoid programming cuts, minimize education property tax increases and close Addison Central School (ACS) for use as an elementary school.
On Town Meeting Day, March 3, ANWSD residents will be asked to approve $21,842,595 in spending for next year, which is nearly $300,000 less than the amount voters approved for the current fiscal year.
“It represents the most efficient model for maintaining the quality of programming within and across the schools,” said ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule. “We are able to maintain all programs and co-curricular offerings at the middle and high school with this budget.”
The school board approved the figure at its Jan. 13 meeting after considering two very different budget scenarios — one that would keep ACS open as an elementary school, and one that would not. The board chose the latter.

ADDISON ‘REPURPOSED’
On Nov. 5, Addison voters overwhelmingly defeated the ANWSD’s proposal to close Addison Central School as an elementary school on June 30, 2020, and Ferrisburgh voters overwhelmingly defeated a similar proposal for Ferrisburgh Central School (FCS).
Nonetheless, beginning next year, Addison’s elementary students will attend Vergennes Union Elementary School (VUES), and the ACS building will be “repurposed” for alternative education.
This reconfiguration will occur regardless of the outcome of the budget vote in March. The ANWSD board formally eliminated ACS as an elementary school at its Jan. 22 meeting, when it voted to change a district policy that assigns students based on their town of residence.
Addison representative Laurie Childers was the only school board member to vote against the policy change.
“With all respect to all the parents we have in this community, it feels unfair that Addison is getting ‘repurposed,’ and Ferrisburgh gets to keep everything,” Childers said at the meeting. “It bothers me. A lot.”
But, according to Soule, keeping ACS open “would have placed an undue burden on our taxpayers across all five communities” in ANWSD: Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham.
With 62 students, ACS is the fourth-smallest school in Addison County, in terms of enrollment.
Continuing to operate its four classrooms would “duplicate services already being offered elsewhere,” Soule said. “Repurposing (ACS) in this way ensures these costs do not continue to compound and grow, requiring even more painful reductions next year.”

COST SAVINGS
Repurposing ACS will save the district an estimated $1.5 million over the next five years, according to Elizabeth Jennings, ANWSD director of finance and operations.
In addition to saving money, the proposed spending plan preserves a number of jobs that ANWSD officials had suggested cutting if ACS were kept open: the director of school counseling, one intervention services position, one elementary school administrator and 0.35 full time equivalent instructor of world languages. The plan also avoids the moderate cuts to elementary athletics and facilities maintenance advanced in the alternative budget, according to documents presented by Jennings to the school board on Jan. 13.
Financial estimates that came in just before the Jan. 13 meeting underscored the district’s argument that “repurposing” ACS is the most cost-effective choice.
According to Jennings and Soule, the cost of keeping ACS open increased another $242,000 when the new data were incorporated, pushing that budget option beyond the state-mandated per-pupil-spending threshold.
As of mid-January, the estimated increase in the union property tax rate for the proposed budget is 3.77 cents per $100 of property value, whereas keeping ACS open would have resulted in an estimated 9.58 cents tax increase, according to Jennings and Soule.
Last year’s ANWSD spending plan, which increased education property taxes by 9.65 cents, passed by only six votes.
The estimated 3.77-cent union tax rate increase will almost certainly change, as state contributions to education spending evolve. The 2020–2021 nonresident education tax rate, income yield and homestead property yield will be set by the Legislature during its 2020 session.
“The most accurate number we will have for the Union Tax Rate will be whatever number we have when we publish our Annual Book (next month) with the budget proposal included,” Jennings said.
The education tax rate for individual towns will then be adjusted according to their respective common levels of appraisal, or CLA.

DECLINING ENROLLMENT
Why are education property taxes projected to increase if the school district has proposed a 1.3% decrease in spending?
A big part of the reason is declining enrollment.
As student populations decrease, so does the revenue that school districts receive from the state, since state funding is allotted on a per-pupil basis.
Over the last 15 years, student enrollment in the four schools that make up ANWSD — ACS, FCS, VUES and Vergennes Union High School — has declined by about 400 students, to 850.
Over the next five years, enrollment is expected to decline another 10%, to 760.
The cost of educating students, on the other hand, is often based on factors that are not immediately affected by declining enrollment, such as employee health care costs, building maintenance and transportation.
For instance, when the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center proposes a $396,414 increase in spending, as it has done for next year, ANWSD must scramble to find another $104,000 in its own budget.
At the Jan. 22 ANWSD school board meeting, Vergennes resident Alexandria McGuire said she felt that the board’s budget proposal and plan to reconfigure ACS reflect “where we are financially.”
“I wish all the schools could stay open,” McGuire said. But as a former member of the Vergennes Planning Commission and Development Review Board, “I’ve seen the census data. I don’t think you guys (on the board) have a choice, and I think you’re doing what needs to be done.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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