ANWSD questions some assertions on Addison separation
ADDISON — With the town of Addison’s July 13 vote looming on whether to withdraw from the Addison Northwest School District, ANWSD board members and administrators say they are supportive of the town residents’ right to petition for the vote and take that first step toward separation.
But they also raise questions about financial information proposed for an Addison selectboard flyer for residents, calling it misleading, and whether the town’s membership in ANWSD has really been the fiscal and educational burden that the flyer suggests.
An ANWSD board statement, released by Chairman John Stroup, opens:
“The ANWSD has focused on providing the best possible education for all of its students, and the District has worked hard to keep taxes as low as possible. We’ve done really well so far, and our voters know it because they have overwhelmingly supported our budgets.”
Meanwhile, numbers show an increase of less than 4% in Addison’s residential school tax rate since 2016, and less than 7% growth in district budgets during that time span.
ANWSD officials also question whether separation proponents accurately represent what will happen if Addison goes its own way.
This is certain: If Addison residents favor withdrawal in town-wide voting on July 13, then residents of the other four ANWSD communities — Ferrisburgh, Vergennes, Panton and Waltham — would also all have to approve separation.
Then the Vermont Board of Education would have to rule that Addison has the ability to serve its students and also back its withdrawal.
There is precedent for Addison’s separation. That’s the path Ripton followed this spring in withdrawing from the Addison Central School District.
The selectboard flyer cites feelings Addison residents have about ANWSD, including what many in Addison see as the central value of the former Addison Central School (ACS) to the fabric of their community. It cites the “negative impact the ANWSD will continue to have on the tax burden and viability of our town.”
In November 2019 Addison residents joined their counterparts in Ferrisburgh in soundly rejecting an ANWSD plan to close their elementary schools. The vote in Addison went 373-123.
Since then, ANWSD has converted ACS into the Addison Wayfinders Experience, a special education hub that also draws students from other districts, saves ANWSD money, and technically keeps ACS open for education. But Addison’s younger students now attend Vergennes Union Elementary School.
In January 2020, the ANWSD board cited a legal opinion when it rejected a pair of citizen petitions that would have prevented the board from closing schools without permission of voters in the school’s town. The statute the board cited appears open to interpretation.
Both those decisions angered many in Addison, who believe the board could have warned a vote on a charter change to allow towns a direct say. The selectboard flyer points to the vote and the rejected petitions as issues.
At least some Addison residents also take issue with the possible ANWSD merger with the Mount Abraham Unified School District, which the draft flyer refers to as “a massive consolidation” that could further increase Addison’s tax burden.
The question of the tax burden ANWSD has imposed on Addison does appear open to interpretation.
Below is a seven-year scan of Addison’s residential (homestead) tax rate. It should be noted that factors such as Addison’s Common Level of Appraisal, which is out of legislative and ANWSD control, affects tax rates.
2017 was the first year the rate was set under ANWSD control.
• 2015: $1.5259 (ANwSU)
• 2016: $1.6250 (ANwSU)
• 2017: $1.4975 (ANWSD)
• 2018: $1.5457 (ANWSD)
• 2019: $1.7157 (ANWSD)
• 2020: $1.7148 (ANWSD)
• 2021: $1.6826 (ANWSD — estimated; final school tax rates have not yet been set)
Assuming the estimate is accurate and rounding to 6 cents as the difference between 2016, the last year of supervisory union control and 2021, the most recent rate set under ANWSD control, the change translates to about a 3.7% overall increase over that span in the Addison residential rate.
During the five ANWSD years, homestead tax rates have risen about 2.4% a year.
ANWSD officials also take issue with the Addison selectboard flyer’s claim that “Under the Act 46 ANWSD Union, Education spending increased $2.3 million from FY2017 to FY2020.”
Essentially, Stroup said, that claim is based on cherry-picking a year in which major cuts were made to the ANWSD budget and then comparing it to the highest ANWSD budget.
Stroup noted ANWSD budgets have been cut in three of the past four years, while ANWSD Director of Finance and Operations Elizabeth Atkins in an email offered other comparisons to the most recently adopted Fiscal Year 2022 budget.
“If instead we use Budgeted Expenditures from FY16 (the highest year before consolidation) to FY22 (adopted budget showing downward trajectory since FY20) the increase is only $311,000 … if we are more fair and don’t use the FY16 ‘high year,’ and move it back to FY15, the increase is still only $1.4 million.”
That $1.4 million from FY15’s roughly $20.2 million budget to FY22’s $21.56 million is less than 7% over that time span, or about 1% a year.
Stroup also objected to the selectboard flyer statement, “With Addison Central School closed, education spending has been projected to increase another $6 million by FY2026.”
That estimate is based on an older document that the ANWSD board is no longer using, he said in an email.
“Our latest estimates (June 2021) expect an increase of $3,710,141 million (not $6 million) if we do absolutely nothing. That estimate is literally labeled ‘do nothing’ budget in our estimates,” he wrote.
Proponents of Addison’s withdrawal and ANWSD officials disagree on some details on the effects of separation, but it’s clear Addison residents will have decisions to make.
An informational meeting is scheduled for Addison Town Hall (at the junction of Routes 17 and 22A) on July 6 at 7 p.m. Stroup said he hopes he and ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule will have a chance to speak at that meeting. If not, Addison’s representatives on the ANWSD board can speak their own minds.
Proponents said withdrawal from ANWSD would pave the way for Addison to pursue several options. According to the draft flyer:
• “The Town of Addison will become a pK-12 tuition school district.”
• “A local school board will be reorganized with members approved by voters.”
• “Addison taxpayers will be responsible for individual tuition for students residing full-time in the Town of Addison (currently 138 students.)”
• “If a parent chooses a STATE public school, the tuition is set by that STATE school. If a parent chooses a state approved INDEPENDENT school, the tuition is set by that school, not to exceed the STATE cap. The ANWSD FY2022 Tuition is $17,266 for K-6 and $18,514 for 7-12. The 2021/2022 caps for independent schools are $15,513 for K-6 and $16,842.00 for 7-12.”
(Note: Those caps do not include transportation costs included in the public school figures, and in some cases independent schools can charge more, according to information in Addison minutes.)
According to the Final Report of the Addison School Option Study Committee, the committee consulted former Vermont Agency of Education Director of Finance Brad James about the aftermath of separation. (The full report may be found here: tinyurl.com/b254tru8.)
James said his answers depend on how statutes are interpreted, “But Addison would be a pK-12 district in one operating fashion or another.”
James said one statute “gives the voters the prerogative to choose to not operate a school, which would require a specific vote … if the voters do not choose to allow the board … to tuition the elementary students, Addison would be a pK-12 district that operates pK-6 and tuitions 7-12. If they do choose to allow the board to pay tuition, then Addison would be a pK-12 tuitioning district.”
According to James, the default would be a public school, but residents could chart a different course, but would have to understand neither the selectboard nor school board could operate or have a say in operating a school, and not dictate where families chose to send their children.
“According to statute, the voters have to decide to not operate a public school,” James told the committee. “If that became the case and someone — not the school board — decided to open an independent school, then the Addison school board would have no say in its creation, implementation, or operation. The Addison school board would pay tuition to wherever the pK-6 parents decided to send their children.”
In a report to the ANWSD board on June 14, Superintendent Sheila Soule said she believed Addison would be a “reconstituted” district that would default by statute to its previous state — in the town’s case, running an elementary school — unless residents took action differently.
“In the case of an elementary school district, the most basic form — the default — is to operate an elementary school,” Soule wrote. “If these interpretations hold, a ‘reconstituted Addison School District’ would then be responsible for educating its resident elementary students by operating a school, unless and until the voters subsequently authorize the town school district to pay tuition on the students’ behalf.”
Soule added, “Although … ANSWD might transfer title (of ACS) to a reconstituted Addison School District under the terms of withdrawal negotiated per (statute) nothing in statute requires the ANWSD to do so.
Without ACS, Soule wrote, “a ‘reconstituted” Addison School District would need to buy or lease classroom space — as well as hire and oversee licensed educators — to fulfill its statutory obligations to the students as of the first day withdrawal and ‘reconstitution’ are fully effective.”
Soule also noted in an email to the Independent that a new non-public school would not necessarily be one-size-fits-all solution for Addison.
“If an independent school begins to operate in the town, there is nothing in the law that would require parents to send their children to that school,” Soule said. “The town/district would be responsible for educating all resident students regardless of whether or not an independent school exists within their boundaries.”
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