Addison is discussing an exit from ANWSD
ADDISON — Joined by a former Vermont independent school administrator on Tuesday, the Addison selectboard looked at options for its students’ education that included operating an independent town school, tuitioning all its students to districts of families’ choice, or persuading the Addison Northwest School District to adopt an independent academy model.
The discussion comes in the wake of the ANWSD board’s decision this past winter to close Addison Central School as an elementary school this year and repurpose it as a special education hub. The decision was made as a cost-saving measure and for educational benefits — in the 2019-2020 school year ACS had 60 students.
Addison has been considering options since.
A district-wide ANWSD academy option could mean retaining its board and operating Vergennes Union High School in the manner of Lyndon Institute and St. Johnsbury, Thetford and Burr & Burton academies.
Those schools have more control over programming and calendars than purely public schools, but also must accept all residents from a specified geographic area under a tuition rate at least as high as the statewide rate. They must also follow government mandates that include special education.
All Addison’s choices would require a vote of approval by residents all five ANWSD towns. The first two options would mean Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham would allow Addison to leave ANWSD, while the third would mean all five communities would embrace major change.
If Addison were to have its own independent school or academy, precedents exist in North Bennington and Winhall.
Persuading residents and school staff members to approve any of the options would be “a heavy lift,” Thomas Martin, the former Founding Head and Chief Executive Officer of the independent Village School of North Bennington, told the board on Tuesday.
But Martin also said he would be glad to support Addison’s effort after the benefits he claimed in North Bennington after the school changed from a public to an independent school.
“It was an eye-opening experience to see the difference it made,” Martin said. “I’m happy to help you out any way I can.”
Tuesday’s meeting was the latest step in Addison to look into different options. This spring the selectboard formed a committee to study the town’s educational future.
Its charge was “to provide voters opportunities to make local decisions regarding school choice and enrollment in graded schools and approved independent schools that are appropriate for our community.”
As well as the repurposing of ACS, Addison officials and residents were upset the ANWSD board did not honor the town’s November 2019 vote against closing the school, 373-123. The selectboard also wrote in a letter to the Independent that its members believe the board violated the ANWSD’s charter (See Page 5A):
“Ignoring the voter results and the Act 46 Articles of Agreement’s four year guarantee, the ANWSD school board closed Addison Central School June 30 using reconfiguration authority.”
ANWSD Chairman John Stroup responded in an email to that assertion: “The ANWSD Board acted within its legal authority to determine building use and attendance areas for students within the district.”
The Addison committee met several times between early June and July. After its July 1 meeting the committee issued a report to the selectboard that included these recommendations:
• To protect Addison taxpayers from inadequate ANWSD consolidation information, spiraling budgets and consolidation.
• To inform voters through mailers, forum(s), media, Front Porch Forum…
• To encourage other ANWSD town municipalities and ANWSD voters to consider the dissolution of the five-town district. This would allow towns to own their destiny with a greater understanding of where Act 46 has and is taking ANWSD, which the committee said was to “higher taxes and more consolidation.”
Full committee minutes may be found here: tinyurl.com/y4a9mn48.
On Tuesday, Martin went over his experiences in North Bennington between 2013 and 2016 as the leader of the North Bennington Village School and answered questions from the board and citizens who were able to log onto the meeting through Zoom.
It was apparently the board’s first Zoom meeting. Several people reported they could not log on, and a YouTube feed did not immediately work. The Independent found it difficult to access the meeting and missed its beginning. By the weekend, Addison officials notified the Independent a video of the meeting was available, and it may be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ww66GQ7km58.
Martin said he believed independent schools can be run more efficiently by avoiding “regulatory oversight” in some areas, including educational programming that called for “compartmentalized instruction.”
In response to a question from Board Chairman Jeff Kauffman, Martin said Addison could absolutely become a “choice district” that could allow families to tuition students to schools of their choice.
Martin noted that many of the towns surrounding Manchester Center’s Burr & Burton Academy are choice districts, although most families opt to send their high school students to BBA.
Martin also said that North Bennington is technically still a public school district with a public board that funds tuition for parents regardless of their choice, although most send their children to the North Bennington school.
Given that information, Kauffman said, “It (VUHS) could become a town academy as well.”
Martin described that option as the ANWSD board overseeing a “non-operating district,” in which it would adopt a budget that would consist of residents’ tuition choices to schools that would technically be independently operated.
In response to residents’ questions, Martin said:
• The ANWSD board would probably survive a vote to create a non-operating district and would establish a tuition-based budget for the cost of sending students of families’ choice, inside and outside the district. “The board would be the public board for that non-operating district. The major change would be they wouldn’t have buildings to oversee,” he said.
• In a non-operating district, or in a town with an independent school, ownership could remain with the town or ANWSD, and buildings could be leased from the board. In a phone call on Wednesday, Martin said in North Bennington the board turned around and used the lease money to lower residents’ school taxes and thus preferred leasing to a sale.
• Independent schools and town academies are still subject to state regulations in areas such as special education and school lunch programs, although they could opt out of federally funded meals programs.
But Martin said schools had more control over staffing, budgeting, programming and establishing calendars.
Martin said before an ANWSD vote on becoming a non-operating district, supporters would have to “spend the time to let the people in those towns come to understand what that means.”
Faculty and staff would also have to be brought aboard, he said. In North Bennington he said teachers were laid off on June 30, 2013, and rehired on July 1.
“It takes a lot of education for your staff,” he said.
On Wednesday Kauffman said the selectboard made no decisions about what its next moves might be.
“We’ve got some work to do if we want to move forward,” Kauffman said at the meeting, adding, “The next step is just educate, educate, educate.”
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