Voters show strong support for all school budgets
ADDISON COUNTY — Voters in Addison County and the Brandon area expressed strong support for 2020-2021 fiscal year school district budgets on Tuesday, including in two districts where in 2019 budgets passed by slender margins.
The outlier was the Slate Valley Unified Union School District, which is centered in Fair Haven and serves the Addison County town of Orwell. SVUUSD voters rejected their school spending proposal and a $59.5 million bond proposal (see story).
Elsewhere in the area, voters were more accepting of school budget proposals.
The $31,399,182 Mount Abraham Unified School District budget passed in the five district towns, 2,391-1,611, or 60-40%. In 2019 the MAUSD spending plan won by just 13 votes.
The $21,842,595 Addison Northwest School District budget earned support in its five communities, 1,679-1,095, or 60.5-39.5%. In 2019 the ANWSD spending plan won by just seven votes.
The $39,507,837 Addison Central School District spending plan again won easily, 3,133-1,361, or 70-30%.
Likewise, a Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center spending plan again won strong backing, 7,341-3,959, or 65-35%. That support came despite an 11.42% increase to $3,864,752.
Finally, voters favored the $20,377,427 Otter Valley Unified Union School District budget, 1098-877, or 56-44%. That margin increased from the 85-vote margin the 2019 district spending plan enjoyed.
MOUNT ABE DISTRICT
The big win for the MAUSD budget of roughly $31.4 million went hand-in-hand with a second article in which voters agreed to apply about $500,000 of a $750,000 surplus from the 2018-2019 school year toward tax relief and the remaining $250,000 into an Education Reserve Fund.
The vote in support of that article went 2611-1201. According to MAUSD officials any use of the fund will require voter approval.
The budget will increase the five-town district’s spending by 1.45%, and, according to MAUSD officials, maintain all current programs.
After backing the budget, district residents are expected to face increases in their towns’ school tax rates ranging from about 5.8 to 8.2%.
Factors pushing tax rates higher include declining district enrollment that is reducing MAUSD per-pupil state revenue, rising salaries, and a spike of 13% or more in the cost of providing health insurance benefits.
The 1.45% budget increase comes despite what officials said will be a reduction of four full-time district teachers and the equivalent of 8.25 other full-time employees, all achieved through attrition and early-retirement buyouts.
According to officials the number of classrooms being used in district elementary schools will be adjusted to reflect changing enrollments and ensure class sizes fall within district guidelines. Bristol Elementary School will gain one classroom, and one fewer each will be used in New Haven’s, Monkton’s and Starksboro’s schools.
District officials did not immediately respond to emails sent on Tuesday seeking comment. After the close vote a year ago and several failures to pass a bond to address facilities needs at Mount Abraham Union High School, the MAUSD board this spring and throughout the fall and winter worked hard to engage community members in discussions on the budget and on the future of the district.
The ANWSD board’s budget proposal of roughly $21.8 million will cut spending by more than 1%, or $300,000, maintain programs, and minimize education property tax increases by closing Addison Central School (ACS) for use as an elementary school. With 62 students, ACS is the fourth-smallest school in Addison County.
The budget preserves 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 VUHS French teacher. The plan also forgoes moderate cuts that had been eyed to elementary athletics and facilities maintenance.
The ANWSD vote followed months of intense public debate over how to address sharply rising costs and steadily declining district enrollment.
On Nov. 5 Addison voters overwhelmingly defeated the board’s proposal to close ACS and Ferrisburgh Central School as of June 30, 2020.
But now the board plans to send Addison’s elementary students to Vergennes Union Elementary School, and the ACS building will be repurposed for alternative education, a move officials estimated will save the district $1.5 million over the next five years.
That move was set to occur regardless of the outcome of the budget vote. The ANWSD board eliminated ACS as an elementary school on Jan. 22, when it voted to change a district policy that assigns students based on their town of residence.
As ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule put it then, keeping ACS as an elementary school “would have placed an undue burden on our taxpayers across all five communities” in ANWSD.
ANWSD board vice-chairman and designated spokesman Tom Borchert said in a Wednesday email the board appreciated Tuesday’s strong backing.
We thank the voters of the Addison Northwest School District for passing the proposed FY21 budget, and for their continued and long-standing support for the education of children in our community,” he said.
Borchert said the board took the 2019 vote and public feedback to heart.
“The board started its work on the FY21 budget in the immediate aftermath of the vote last year. We also engaged in significant community discussion throughout the fall both so that the ANWSD community would understand the position of the district, and also to hear the feedback of the community members,” he said.
Borchert added, “It is our hope that the community understands the situation the district finds itself in, both its strengths and its weaknesses, better than it did last year. Given that, the vote indicates that the community sees this as a good budget that balances financial concerns with the preservation of our educational opportunities.”
The latest district estimates call for an increase to rates of 5.45 cents, before towns’ CLAs are applied.
ANWSD voters also supported creating a Health Insurance Reserve Fund to protect the district from future spikes in the cost of “funding Health Insurance Premiums, Health Reimbursement Account costs, or Health Savings Account costs.” The money is expected to come from unspent budget funds at the close of each fiscal year in an amount of up to $200,000. The article passed, 1,650-1,093.
The roughly $39.5 million ACSD budget increases spending by 3.74% and will, officials said, basically allow the district to maintain current programming.
District officials cited declining enrollment and higher wages and benefits, most notably the higher cost of providing health insurance, as factors pushing spending higher.
The district-wide education property tax rate is estimated to increase by 10 cents to $1.69. CLA impacts will vary around the district, with Ripton benefitting, Middlebury not being affected, and other towns seeing increases that could range from 14 cents in Shoreham to 18 cents in Salisbury.
Final tax rates in all the districts could change again as pupil counts move. And state officials will not set the final numbers until late spring or summer.
ACSD voters also supported, 3,376-1,003, a measure to put $1,282,303 of unspent funds from the 2018-2019 school year into the ACSD Educational Reserve Fund.
The OVUUSD’s roughly $20.4 budget will increase spending by 2.22% and offer a net increase of three educators — and, unlike elsewhere — several students across the district. OVUUSD is seeing positive trends in enrollment that are keeping costs in check.
The district tax rate is expected to increase by 4.5 cents, or 3.28%.
Towns’ CLAs have moved, and tax rate changes will vary. Rates in Goshen, Pittsford, Sudbury and Whiting are projected to increase — barring changes in the district’s per-pupil count — by between roughly 3 and 4.25%.
But rates in Brandon (7.39%) and Leicester (10.21%) are expected to rise more sharply.
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