Early ANWSD budget draft keeps programs, sees minor tax hike
To be able to offer flexibility and choice … we can’t always reduce staff in proportion to the declining enrollment. We can only be so small.
— ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule
VERGENNES — The Addison Northwest School Board on Nov. 16 looked at a preliminary 2021-2022 (fiscal year ’22) budget that would cut spending by $121,000 to about $21.7 million, preserve student programming and the existing district configuration, and raise taxes only slightly, according to ANWSD administrators.
But declining enrollment, rising salaries and benefits, and possibly a major hole in the Vermont Education Fund could tell a different story in FY23, according to ANWSD officials.
And the long-term financial and demographic trends remain problematic, and the district is eyeing a range of configuration alternatives that include a full merger with the Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD) as well as school closures and a larger middle school.
The immediate order of business last week, however, was the board’s first look at the first draft of a FY22 budget that could raise the district-wide residential tax rate by 1.59 cents to $1.7881 per $100 of assessed property value, according to ANWSD Finance and Operations Department Director Elizabeth Jennings.
For owners of homes who pay based on their incomes, that increase would translate to about $16 per $100,000 of assessed value. Towns with Common Levels of Appraisal (CLAs) below 100% would see higher increases.
But those current estimates did not take into account an announcement earlier in the Nov. 16 meeting by Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center Superintendent Dana Peterson of a budgeted spending reduction.
Board members asked Jennings if no tax increase was possible. Given Peterson’s announcement, which means a lower line item for ANWSD spending, Jennings said yes.
“It wouldn’t take us a whole lot to get us to get to a zero tax increase in this budget, based on estimates,” she said.
ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule said despite the $121,000 lower proposed spending, programming for students would not be affected.
“We haven’t eliminated any programs. We have made program reductions,” Soule said.
Soule said the equivalent of three full-time positions among support staff across the district would be eliminated. This is a broad category that according to Jennings includes “Intervention, Guidance, Nurses, Psychologists, Speech Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Curriculum, Improvement of Instruction, and Library/Media.”
The reductions in FTEs were proposed “based on need for students,” Soule said, while other reductions were made in supplies, “athletic line items,” changes to retirement buyouts, cutting field trips and a bus route.
At the meeting Soule was asked about small class sizes, especially in some upper-level elective courses. Soule said further personnel cuts would mean fewer programs and offerings.
“To be able to offer flexibility and choice, and empower students to build a schedule that really matches their aspirations and goals, we can’t always reduce staff in proportion to the declining enrollment. We can only be so small,” she said.
Soule was also asked about the proposal made a year ago to move younger students into the middle school at Vergennes Union High School. She said if major district change was possible ahead it was best to not make “piecemeal” changes now.
“We wanted to maybe get a better overarching vision of the whole plan before moving any one particular part of that. We don’t want to move people more than once,” Soule said.
Although Soule said administrators did not consider recommending reconfiguration for FY22, she added the long-term projections for salary and benefit increases and enrollment and other financial data — including a possible COVID-related $70 million hole in the FY23 state education fund — “were important to keep in mind” as the board contemplates the future.
Jennings made a similar point while talking about declining enrollment’s impact on FY23’s projected state revenue, and thus the district’s tax rate.
“It’s going to hit us in our 2023 budget,” she said.
During budget discussions Board Chairperson John Stroup also referred to the “big hole in the ed fund that has to be shored up,” and he earlier told the Independent he hoped Congress would step up to the plate with more COVID relief funding.
Stroup said the FY22 budget Soule and Jennings presented would allow the district time to prepare for more drastic measures, if necessary or desirable, for FY23.
“This kind of budget gives us a chance to be able to do the kinds of things to get to the goals that we want. And that’s to keep and maintain the programs for kids that we’ve been talking about, that we’re able to get to a reasonable cost for our education for our people, that we can hopefully get ourselves to some stability,” Stroup said.
Meanwhile, board members also looked at budget scenarios that showed without major structural change or program/personnel cuts to the district that by FY26 district spending would crest at $26 million annually and trigger major tax hikes.
Board member Brad Dewey said the board needed to make sure residents understand the math.
“We know what the revenues are. We know how many students we’re going to have. Let people know … if we just keep schools the same way, in Fiscal Year ’26 that $5,000 of taxes on a $300,000 home will be $8,000,” Dewey said.
“Let everyone eat that and understand what it is, and then we have the discussion through the CEC (Community Engagement Committee) and taxpayers, and as a community determine what can we afford, what do we want to afford, what do we want as priorities, those sorts of things. But it’s still sort of mysterious to someone who is not doing the numbers themselves.”
The CEC will hold a virtual meeting on Dec. 8 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. that will include presentations on budget, financial and demographic information as well as a look at potential reconfiguration options, including a merger with the Mount Abe district.
Consultants that both districts hired earlier this year raised that merger as a possibility. According to preliminary figures Jennings shared with the board last week the districts could share $3.3 million in savings by fully merging the districts’ high and middle schools and central offices.
That figure assumes combining the high and middle schools, including sixth-graders, thus eliminating about 30 jobs, plus eliminating 11 central office jobs. Jennings wrote more savings could be realized by “combining athletics and co-curricular programs.”
ANWSD officials said MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen will make a presentation to his board on Dec. 7 that could show how much MAUSD is interested in working with ANWSD.
In the meantime, Stroup said the ANWSD board wants to hear from its residents, including at the Dec. 8 CEC meeting, about all the issues, including possible internal reconfiguration and merger options.
“Those are part of the CEC community engagement conversations, thinking about the long term now,” he said.
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