Education News

ANWSD 2022-23 budget gets a first look

VERGENNES — The Addison Northwest School District board on Nov. 15 looked favorably on a $22.08 million district-wide budget proposal that would increase spending by about $480,000.

At the same time the board looked at applying almost $600,000 of an audited $1.866 million surplus from the 2020-21 school year that could — if early estimates are accurate — keep an increase in the district-wide ANWSD tax rate to 4 cents or a little more.

Board members eyed setting aside the rest of that fund balance to take care of district infrastructure needs over the next five years. A related article discusses how the district ended up with the surplus.

Board members noted the projected tax increase would follow a drop in the district-wide homestead rate in the previous fiscal year of about 11 cents, from $1.7722 per $100 of assessed home property value to $1.664.

Given rising property values, after Common Levels of Appraisal (CLAs) were applied this year in each town, however, the impact of that lower tax rate did not fully translate to taxpayers. Final rates ranged from no increase in Waltham to a drop of more than 5 cents in Ferrisburgh, and CLAs are expected to have more of an effect this coming year given 2021’s overheated real estate market.

Board members and district officials emphasized the budget and the estimates were, in Chair John Stroup’s words, “very preliminary.” ANWSD Director of Finance and Operations Elizabeth Jennings said she had confidence in her work, but cautioned the board she had no information from the Department of Education or the Legislature on the district’s pupil count, what the statewide tax rate might be, or where the numbers would land that determine amounts paid by those who pay property taxes based on their incomes.

“We have absolutely no input from them on anything,” Jennings said.

Board member George Gardner also brought up the recently completed weighting study that looked at how to count equalized pupils that a legislative study committee is now considering. Schools are funded based on “equalized” pupils because some students are considered more expensive to educate than others by state education officials, such as those whose first language is not English.

If the equalized pupil weighting formula is adopted as originally proposed, rural districts like those in Addison County would stand to lose pupil numbers and revenue, thus making budgeting even more challenging.

“The elephant in the room here is the weighting study. Is that going to apply to the budget?” Gardner said.

Jennings said that revisions to the legislation that would incorporate the weighting study appear to be in progress, any changes could be phased in, and new methods might not be applied in the next fiscal year. She said her best guess was that any impact from recalculating student compensation is more likely to be felt in the future, although the concept remains up in the air.

“It’s unclear to me where it is going to land,” Jennings said.

Superintendent Sheila Soule outlined what the extra $480,000 spending would do in what officials are calling their “strategic budget,” as opposed to a level budget that would simply maintain all existing levels of services and programs.

On top of contracted salary hikes and expected higher costs in utilities and other inflationary items, Soule said critical new items included a staff member in the high school’s Resource Response Center “in response to changing student need in the wake of COVID-19 challenges,” higher wages for substitute teachers to bring ANWSD in line with neighboring districts, and a 40% position at Ferrisburgh Central School to help with a large kindergarten class.

“We ended up in a different place than we were last year. There are different student needs,” Soule said.

Jennings in her written report to the board said there was only one way to lower spending.

“This year, we did look for ways to reduce, however it appears our current year budget is already lean. There are not any options for reductions without changing programming,” Jennings wrote.

Board Chair John Stroup said that even with the increase the board discussed for the 2022-23 budget, it would still be lower than the highest previous ANWSD budget of about $22.14 million, which came in the 2019-20 school year.

‘THOUGHT EXCHANGE’

Before board members reached a consensus, they also reviewed a “thought exchange” collected by its Community Engagement Committee. That recent effort gathered 169 thoughts from 109 ANWSD residents, about two-thirds of whom had children attending district schools.

Those residents, according to a summary provided by the committee, identified as their highest priorities “hiring great teachers,” maintaining adequate and strong course selections, and preserving programming in the middle and high schools. Most also expressed a willingness to pay more in taxes to achieve those goals.

Board members also noted public support for taking care of district assets. Mark Koenig called the projects “good to be done over the next five years.”

Stroup summed up the discussion by asking, “Are we all in agreement” about a series of statements, and the board appeared to reach a consensus on each, that:

  • Student programs should be maintained.
  • The middle/high school Resource Response Center should be reinforced.
  • In order to maintain course offerings it was acceptable some advanced courses and electives at the high school had small class sizes.
  • A strong professional development program should be retained.
  • A portion of the surplus should be used to keep an increase in the district tax rate to between 4 and 5 cents, and most of the remainder be devoted to infrastructure.

The board also expressed thanks to Jennings and the district staff for the financial work that shepherded the surplus and a favorable audit report about the district’s fiscal management.

“This is an incredible result,” Stroup said. “The taxpayers should know their financial and collective resources are being well managed.”

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