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ANWSD mulls hard times ahead for schools

VERGENNES — In an atmosphere of increasing financial pressure on public schools, the Addison Northwest School District board on Monday discussed five scenarios for the future of the Vergennes-area district. Board members focused on how they will engage ANWSD residents in the process of making the difficult educational and financial decisions that lie ahead.
Each of the scenarios the board eyed on Monday features varying programming levels, and most differ in where students would study and which buildings would remain open.
“We aren’t prioritizing any of these options at this time. These are all options for us to learn about and think about,” said ANWSD Board Chairman John Stroup.
Stroup said by December and January the board hopes to “be able to make some really informed choices after a lot of community engagement, a lot of communication.”
The board has spent two recent meetings eyeing the district’s future. On April 16, members looked at the larger questions, including declining enrollment and the related loss of state revenue, and aligning district facilities with those factors. Board members also looked at educational priorities, out-of-district consolidation options, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At that meeting board members selected a half-dozen plans to study further and discuss with ANWSD residents. On Monday the board selected five of those scenarios to examine just for the 2021-2022 school year.
Those discussions are being held during challenging fiscal times for ANWSD. The district is not alone: State officials are estimating a statewide Education Fund deficit of $70 million for this year and potentially worse in years ahead due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 
In ANWSD, District Director of Finance and Operations Elizabeth Jennings recently estimated that by the 2021-2022 school year the district would have to trim between $1 million and $1.6 million from its approved 2020-2021 spending to remain under the state per-pupil spending penalty threshold. 
Because state revenue is linked to pupil count, the district’s steady loss of students — as many as a projected 28 equalized pupils in the next two years — will mean an equally steady loss of funding. 
Many financial details remain uncertain because of the current pandemic, officials cautioned. But state and local officials have recently estimated without federal help or drastic spending cuts the statewide tax rate might have to rise between 17 and 22 cents. 
ANWSD encompasses five municipalities and four school buildings: Vergennes Union High School, Vergennes Union Elementary School, Ferrisburgh Central School and Addison Central School.

SCENARIOS
The scenarios the board chose to study for the 2021-2022 school year (fiscal year ’22), including modifications approved on Monday, are:
•  Four buildings using a “Baseline Budget” based on the FY 20 (current) structure, keep all buildings operational.
•  Four buildings using a “Strategic Budget” that would maintain the FY 21 (2020-2021 school year) structure (Addison Central School would will host alternative education). This plan would rely on administration recommendations for program reductions and other cost savings. 
This scenario was reworded on Monday to remove language that included ending art and athletic programming, with the administrative discretion added. 
•  Three buildings hosting grades PreK-2, 3-5 and 6-12, respectively.
•  Two buildings, PreK-4 and 5-12.
•  Two buildings, PreK-4/5 and 5/6-8, with tuitioning out of high school students.  
Variable in all scenarios would be the locations of the district’s central office and alternative education program.
The board also asked administrators to calculate transportation, staffing, maintenance and other costs for the scenarios, and attempt to project staffing costs for five years down the road, when the district is projected to have 90 fewer students.
The board also hopes to work with the Mount Abraham Unified School District to conduct  November straw votes in both districts to get feedback on a possible future merger. The two districts already share a food service program and two athletic teams.
Those five plans will all be studied further. Information will be updated at anwsd.org; communications will go out to ANWSD residents through social media, school newsletters and newspapers this spring and summer; and the board will hold at least four public forums in the fall.
Stroup confirmed to the Independent that the board has a legal opinion it can close a school for the 2021-2022 school year without a vote in the affected community, and thus can propose a budget in March 2021 that would do so. The five-year provision in the district’s 2016 Articles of Unification prohibiting the board from closing a school without a vote expires in July 2021. 
Although some board members questioned on Monday whether all of these scenarios were realistic — especially Nos. 1 and 2 — they agreed that details on all should be shared and residents should have their say. 
Board members decided a sixth option — moving all ANWSD K-8 students into Vergennes Union High School and tuitioning high school students into other districts — is not feasible by FY 22 due to needed renovations. But that choice remains on the table for the long run, they said.
The board hopes its members and the public can learn more about these scenarios by fall, when three key things should be available: data on statewide education finances, an Agency of Education study of statewide district boundaries, and a study commissioned by the board on ANWSD facilities.
Stroup explained the board’s approach in a social media release:
“The board is currently generating concrete ideas and designing plans for deliberations and community engagement in the fall. We are developing a plan for communicating with the public,” Stroup wrote. 
“During the months of August-November, we will narrow our considerations by describing and analyzing our options. Finally, December 2020 through January 2021 represents the budget season in which choices must be made.”
On Monday Stroup concluded the discussion: “We’ve done what we had to do. Now we have a plan to move forward into the fall.”

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