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Addison mulls over ANWSD departure

I’m not sure what the path forward is … If we pull out, do we get the building back?
— Alden Harwood

ADDISON — The Addison selectboard heard pros and cons at an informational meeting on Tuesday in advance of July 13 town-wide vote on whether Addison should follow Ripton and try to become the second Addison County rural town to withdraw from a unified school district.

Voting hours on the question “Shall the Town of Addison withdraw from the Addison Northwest School District?” will run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. this coming Tuesday.

At this past Tuesday’s meeting, on July 6, selectboard members and some of the almost 30 residents gathered in the town’s Route 17 fire station said withdrawal from ANWSD would give Addison families more options.

“If we vote to withdraw it opens up choices,” said resident Karrie Kauffman. “It opens up choices for the future.”

Possibilities they cited were opening a new public or independent elementary school while tuitioning older students to other districts, or simply tuitioning all of Addison’s preK-12 students to other schools.

Choices could include sending students to schools in ANWSD and other county districts and approved independent schools, which are currently limited in Addison County to Middlebury’s Bridge School, according to those at the meeting.

Others questioned the point of withdrawal given that ANWSD would be under no obligation to return the Addison Central School (ACS) facility to the town. The district board’s position is that ACS, now a county special education hub, is still being used for “educational purposes” under the ANWSD Articles of Unification.

“I’m not sure what the path forward is,” said resident Alden Harwood. “If we pull out, do we get the building back?”

While several said ACS could be returned to Addison, selectboard Chair Jeff Kauffman agreed it was an open question: “The only way we get the building back is if it is no longer used for educational purposes.”

PROCESS

If Addison residents do back withdrawal, more dominoes would have to fall before the town could become its own independent school district as Ripton did this spring in separating from the Addison Central School District. 

First, voters in the other four ANWSD towns must also agree to the split. Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham would have to vote within 90 days to allow the separation process to continue to the next, and final, step.

That would be a ruling by the Vermont Board of Education that Addison could meet the needs of its students — 138 in grades pre-K through 12 this past academic year — without belonging to ANWSD.

Addison’s roughly five-dozen elementary pupils now attend Vergennes Union Elementary School, which, according to Google is 6.7 miles and 11 minutes north of ACS. Addison’s older students attend Vergennes Union High School.

Earlier this year Ripton earned the backing of ACSD towns and the Board of Education. Ripton elected its own school board, which will take responsibility for educating Ripton students in the 2022-2023 school year. Ripton plans to educate its PreK-6 pupils and tuition out its older students.

ADDISON ISSUES

Many residents in Addison are upset that the ANWSD board decided to change ACS into a special education center operated by the Counseling Service of Addison County that serves students from all county districts.

The board made that decision despite a strong November 2019 vote in Addison and Ferrisburgh against an ANWSD proposal to close elementary schools in both towns as cost-saving consolidation measures. In Addison, the vote against went 373-123.

The ANWSD board said the district’s Articles of Unification allows them to move students within the district, and that they did not need permission to change the use of ACS because it is still an educational center.

Thus, a major grievance is Addison is the loss of an elementary school that many saw as a vital community hub.

Others have cited the high cost of consolidation, especially in the central office, although data is mixed on that count. 

During the six ANWSD years, the town of Addison’s homestead tax rate has increased about 4%, from about $1.62 to roughly $1.69, with years of lower and higher rates between. 

Many are also upset the ANWSD board in January 2020 rejected two petitions that called for district-wide voting to amend the ANWSD charter to give a town’s voters the right to veto a proposed school closure.

ANWSD board members said the Articles of Unification left them no choice but to deny the petitions, and they cited legal advice.

Proponents of Addison’s withdrawal also take issue with the possible merger with the Mount Abraham Unified District now being discussed, which a selectboard flyer refers to as “a massive consolidation” that they say could increase Addison’s tax burden.

On June 5, the selectboard adopted the recommendations of a board-appointed Addison School Option Study Committee and called for the July 13 vote and for Tuesday’s informational meeting.

INFO FORUM

Although the School Option Study Committee and the selectboard both have discussed an independent school as a viable option for the town, Kauffman said at the outset of Tuesday’s meeting that and other post-withdrawal organizational questions are separate.

State law forbids a town selectboard or school board from organizing or founding an independent or private school or town academy, Kauffman noted.

“That (the ability to set a withdrawal vote) is the only action the town selectboard has any authority over,” Kauffman said. “It’s not about an independent school or anything else … Everything else would be separate votes.”

The ANWSD board was not officially invited to the meeting, but Laurie Childers, one of Addison’s two representatives on the board, questioned how the town would find the money to pay for “central office expenses.”

Those could include meeting the needs of special education students, including billing for state and federal special ed reimbursement, even if Addison became a tuitioning district.

Kauffman said the town’s school board could attend to those issues.

“We have to have a school board even if we are a tuitioning district,” Kauffman said.

Childers said she was not convinced a board alone could handle the tasks, and that affiliation with a supervisory union or unified district might be required.

“I’m pretty sure a school district has to have central office services,” she said.

Several, including Elizabeth Armstrong and Carol Kauffman, hoped that Addison could work out the return of ACS.

Armstrong said the ANWSD Articles of Unification actually call for ANWSD to offer the building back for $1, if it is no longer an elementary school.

Carol Kauffman said negotiations could be successful because there is a group with a strong enough interest in founding an independent school or town academy.

Selectboard Member Peter Briggs said there was no way the town could get the building back unless residents vote yes.

“This is a very small first step,” Briggs said. “This is all the selectboard can do.”

Karrie Kauffman said now Addison residents have no choices except to send their children to VUES or pay private school tuition. Without a yes vote, that status quo cannot change, she said.

John Spencer cautioned withdrawal would come at a cost. He estimated the town’s residential tax rate could rise to $1.91 from its current $1.6929, which is based on the ANWSD district rate.

Spencer based that figure on the $2.7 million Addison now pays the state in property tax revenue and its current student count.

Carol Kauffman countered that based on the state tuitioning rates the figure should be closer to $2.4 million, but acknowledged that difference was “not a huge savings” and that taxes could increase.

Still, she said higher levees could be worth it.

“But it gives us opportunity,” she said. “It gives us viability.”

Some were not concerned about a possible tax hike after withdrawal. David Entrott said his main concern was for Addison’s pupils, not his pocketbook.

“Vote yes for the children, not because it’s going to cost us more,” Entrott said.

Others were unsure of what might happen if Addison had to fend for itself, including Jane Spencer.

She said she believed Ripton’s case was different because the town owned its public elementary school and there was a stronger “groundswell” of activism centered around preserving it.

“They wanted a public school in their town … There was people power for that,” Spencer said. “That’s a real different situation.”

“We could have a public school in this town,” Jeff Kauffman replied.

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