Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: COVID takes toll on school budget

As we wrap up the school year, the ANWSD Board would like to thank our students, parents/guardians, faculty and staff for their extraordinary resilience, creativity, and kindness during this school year. We know it has been the most difficult year, and we thank all of them for continuing to teach and learn together.
Unfortunately, the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic are far from over. The economic impact of this crisis will lead to some difficult decisions about our budget and our structure as a district. We would like to take this opportunity to explain more fully the discussions the Board is having about potential strategies to address our financial challenges. It will take steady community engagement to solve these problems, so we ask you to stay informed, take advantage of opportunities to learn more, and engage with the Board.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we faced chronic financial issues driven by declines in enrollment and ever-increasing costs, especially healthcare insurance. Much of these financial issues are beyond the Board’s direct control. To understand our chronic issues, please consider our FY21 budget and its resulting tax impact. The ANWSD was the only district in the state to cut its budget for FY21. We cut our budget by 1.3%, yet our taxes are still expected to increase by approximately $0.05 because of lost revenues from declining enrollment (please note: the final tax increase is still yet to be determined by the State government). The ANWSD expects its enrollment numbers to decrease by another 90 students over the next five years, further reducing our revenues while increasing the tax rate. 
Because of our already high per-pupil expenses, we also face the threat of additional tax penalties. This is due to the State-mandated per-pupil threshold. If the District’s budget exceeds this threshold, our taxpayers will incur further expenses. To stay under that threshold, current estimates show the need to cut at least $1 million out of next year’s budget and more than $5 million by 2025. How will we continue to make cuts to our budget in order to hold taxes at a reasonable rate of increase while still providing our children with the best possible education? That question is the ANWSD’s chronic issue in a nutshell.
These were the daunting set of financial challenges we faced before the pandemic. Now, the additional pressures of an economy that has been devastated by this crisis places further stress upon our District. Tax revenues across the state have sharply declined and many in our community are struggling to meet their daily financial needs. As we develop our next school budget, we must find innovative ways to balance these financial struggles with the delivery of an excellent public education system for our students.
Over the past two months, the Board has met repeatedly to address these various issues and develop plans to facilitate future discussions. We have asked our administrative team to provide costs, transportation and academic needs related to short- and long-term scenarios. Beyond a baseline status quo budget, we will prepare four short-term FY22 scenarios including: 
•  A “strategic budget” that would maintain the 2020-2021 school year structure in which all four ANWSD buildings will be used for educational purposes, 
•  A three-building model in which grades PreK-2, 3-5 and 6-12 will be consolidated into separate buildings, 
•  A model in which preK-4 and 5-12 will be consolidated in two buildings, and 
•  A model in which we maintain two buildings — one for PreK-4 or 5 and another for 5 or 6 through 8th, with our high school students tuitioning out of the District. 
In all of these scenarios, we will consider the location of the central office and our new multi-district alternative education program which is being housed in Addison this coming school year. We will also directly address our long-term options (through 2025), which include: a single school-building district, a two-building district, as well as possible mergers and/or further programmatic collaborations with our neighboring districts.
We created a community engagement plan for this coming Fall that will include planned events for presentations and feedback on pre-K and childcare needs, Middle Level education, a Facilities Use-Plan Report from the New England School Development Council (NESDEC), and a potential straw poll for the Nov. 3 election. The NESDEC study will be done in conjunction with a similar Mount Abraham Unified School District study in order for us to examine building/facility use within and across both school districts; we expect a final report in December, 2020. All these topics will help inform the way the Board decides to craft a system of education that can continue to serve our community and provide a high quality education for all of our students.
We invite our community members to attend these events and work with us to address both our acute and chronic issues while championing our strengths and values. The Board needs your assistance to get through these challenges. All of us have hard decisions to make, but we are a strong and capable community. We do our best work when we work together, so we are counting on you to stay involved and informed as we move through this process. 
As always, please visit the District website (anwsd.org) or contact the Superintendent’s office for updates and more information about our schools.
Respectfully,
Bill Clark (Ferrisburgh) and John Stroup (Vergennes)
on behalf of the Addison Northwest School District Board of Directors

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