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ANWSD mulls return of Addison’s elementary school to the town

ADDISON/VERGENNES — The future of the former Addison Central School could be decided at the Addison Northwest School Board’s June 13 meeting, and one way forward could lead to Addison’s former elementary school building ending up back in the hands of the town.

“We’ve come to a time when we need to make a choice about that,” ANWSD Board Chair John Stroup told the Independent on Tuesday. “And we need to go down one or two different paths, and we’re going to do that on June 13.”

Certainly Addison would appear to have an interest in the building. During discussions in the summer of 2021 leading up to two votes on whether Addison should withdraw from ANWSD some opponents of leaving the district cited the fact the town did not own the school as an issue.

Those two votes on the question of whether Addison should withdraw from ANWSD were defeated, the first one narrowly.

When the board first discussed in December the possibility of offering the building back to the town, Addison Selectboard Chair Jeff Kauffman said Addison would welcome a chance to own ACS again.

“I believe the town has expressed interest in regaining ownership of the building,” Kauffman wrote in an email to the Independent.

If the ACS building sits empty, its carrying costs would be at least $80,000 for its owner, according to ANWSD board estimates in December. The building is debt-free.

It was also in December when the ANWSD board started serious discussions about the future of the ACS building. Those talks began after Superintendent Sheila Soule recommended the Addison Wayfinder Experience (AWE), which has been housed at ACS, be incorporated into Vergennes Union High School, or possibly another school.

ANWSD shifted Addison’s elementary school students to Vergennes Union Elementary School in the fall of 2020 and at the same time established AWE, which serves special needs students from other local districts as well as ANWSD.

School officials have said there is room at VUHS for AWE, and its students could benefit from offerings there, such as arts, music and physical education. More staff would also be on hand to support the program if necessary.

According to ANWSD Director of Student Support Services Kara Griswold in December, the AWE program can serve up to 12 students in grades 6-12 who “need support around a variety of social, emotional and sometimes behavioral needs that cannot always be addressed or supported within a traditional middle school or high school environment.”

ADDISON CENTRAL SCHOOL OPTIONS

On Monday Stroup offered the board three options to consider for the future of ACS:

  • “Decide we need more time and postpone the discussion to a date in the fall.” This choice would entail stating “specifically what information we need and how we will generate it,” he wrote.
  • “Close ACS and Sell Property to Town.” This option, Stroup said, would mean starting a process that would include three public meetings, with at least one held at ACS, before holding a board vote to offer the building to Addison for $1, as per the ANWSD Articles of Unification.

“Our motion on June 13 will be to begin the process to close or not,” Stroup said on Tuesday.

There is always another possibility regardless of what the board decides: Stroup wrote to the board, “If the Town declines, then the ANWSD retains the property.”

  • “Maintain for ANWSD Educational Purposes.” The board is requesting that Soule research if ANWSD can find a valid need for ACS.

“We’re going to determine if there is an educational purpose. That’s our job,” Stroup said. “Sheila is going to give us some options.”

Options discussed in December included moving the ANWSD central office to ACS. Board members said that move would have the downsides of ACS needing potentially expensive renovations to accommodate a new use.

The district also recently signed a new lease for its office space in Vergennes. And if the district were to merge with the Mount Abraham district, as is being discussed seriously, renovations could be a sunk cost.

Another option listed on Monday in the charge to Soule: “pre-K education for residents of this District.”

On Tuesday, Stroup suggested to the Independent it is possible ACS could become a PreK hub given a wider-spread need.

“One of the educational purposes the ANWSD is best able to provide, and that actually could be possible at the Addison Central School building, with a lot of work, is to use that building to create a strong PreK set of programs there,” he said.

To do so would require a feasibility study, he said, especially to determine if the location is suitable given that ACS is not close to employment hubs, especially in Chittenden County.

“Are there enough people in Vergennes, in New Haven, and maybe Ferrisburgh that would be willing to drive their children, or get their kids to, Addison?” Stroup said. “Most of the people who commute are going north, so it’s out of their way. But they are so desperate for child care they might be willing to go there?”

WRENCH IN THE WORKS?

It is possible, but apparently unlikely, a new law that comprehensively regulates union school district governance, H.727, could complicate ANWSD’s plans.

The law contains an amendment added by the Senate that creates a two-year moratorium on district-imposed school closures, unless a closure is in progress already, approved by voters in the town in which a school is located, or necessary for the health and safety of students and employees.

Because the law takes effect on July 1, Stroup and Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Middlebury, a House Education Committee member, said ANWSD would be able to move forward with offering ACS back to Addison if it starts the process on June 13.

They also believe ANWSD should be able to, for example, await the results of a feasibility study for the building’s use before making a final decision to offer it to Addison.

Stroup said the ANWSD board believes a closure decision would be grandfathered under the moratorium.

“We’re making the argument that because we’re setting ourselves on a path to close it before the deadline that even if we officially close it after the deadline we’ll be OK,” Stroup said. “We’re technically meeting the requirements of the law.”

Conlon, also an Addison Central School Board member, agreed, although he said the ANWSD board might want to get a legal opinion to be sure. He said moving AWE is already accounted for in the ANWSD’s upcoming fiscal year budget, meeting a key provision of the new moratorium.

Conlon said in a situation like ANWSD’s the Legislature could also amend the law during its next session to account for similar circumstances, in which a process is started but research is needed before a final decision.

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The Addison Independent will be closed on Monday, July 4th. The newspaper will be published on Thursday, as usual.