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UPDATED: ANWSD budget defeated again; this time by 18 votes

“The board can decide to bring the very same budget out. They could decide that the budget needs to be reduced further. Part of that is you’ve got to read the tea leaves of what the message was the voters were trying to send.”
— Superintendent Sheila Soule

VERGENNES — For the second time in a 21-day span, residents of the five Addison Northwest School District communities on Tuesday rejected a spending plan to fund education in the district’s three schools for the coming 2024-2025 academic year.

This time the vote was closer in a lighter turnout: Voters said no, 745-727, or 50.6%-49.4%, to a proposed $27.5 million spending plan.

That budget would have maintained all educational offerings except the Vergennes Union High School alternative education program, the Walden Project. That particular reduction had dismayed some in the community.

In all, the ANWSD board had approved a proposal for voter consideration on Tuesday that cut about $750,000 from the roughly $28.2 million plan that lost more decisively on Town Meeting Day, 1,282-1,012.

Reductions had included cutting 1.5 positions paid for until this school year by pandemic-era federal funds, including the  ANWSD Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity Coordinator; some spending on technology equipment and “middle school incidental” purchases, such as furniture; and a contracted social worker.

ANWSD also saved money by ceding responsibility for a special needs program, once based in the Addison Central School building, to the Addison Central School District. ANWSD will continue to tuition students to that program.

But property tax impacts due to low Common Levels of Appraisal were still significant even with those cuts, and though the reductions lowered the district-wide tax rate from $1.5411 per $100 of assessed property value to $1.5371.

According to ANWSD estimates, district homestead tax rates after CLAs were applied would rise by an average of about 15%, although the majority of taxpayers, who pay based on their incomes, would not bear the full brunt of those increases.

That is less than the tax impact of the first budget, which would have increased homestead tax rates by an average of about 19.2%, according to the district.

For example, under the first spending plan, taxes on a $300,000 home in Vergennes would have risen by about $940 for those not paying based on their incomes. But under the spending plan defeated on Tuesday, taxes on the same city home would have gone up by about $700.

Still, ANWSD Board Chair John Stroup said on Wednesday morning he thought those projected increases probably led to the narrow defeat.

“It remains a higher than normal increase in tax rates over previous years, and clearly that is a hard part for many people to get behind,” Stroup said. “Although it’s quite close, we’re not far off, we still have some more work to do.”

Stroup said he would almost certainly call a special board meeting for this coming Monday, April 1, to “debrief, regroup and figure out a timeline for the next vote.”

One problem that ANWSD board members and administrators alike said the defeat caused is the district must now quickly send out, per its contract with the teachers’ union, Reduction in Force (RIF) notices to many faculty members, including to many who probably won’t lose their jobs with the district.

ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule said the district will almost certainly be sending out many more RIF notices than is necessary.

But she added the district must be prepared for the unlikely scenario that it cannot get a budget passed before July, when state law will allow ANWSD to move forward by borrowing only up to 87% of its current spending, a limitations that would mean cutting another $5.4 million. Meeting that target would mean drastic measures ANWSD must be ready to make, Soule said.

“I need to have the right to hold back positions until I have an operating budget,” Soule said. “In determining the RIFs, I’m trying to determine what the drastically reduced budget would look like, and that means things like eliminating electives, eliminating everything but the very minimum required courses and issuing RIF notices to everyone else, knowing that’s a very unlikely situation … We will hopefully have a budget by July 1 where that’s not at all the reality.”

But the resulting uncertainty could lead to the loss of teachers to other districts, Stroup and Soule said, as well as creating personal stress.

“That’s unfortunate both for the district and those employees. It’s unfortunate for those employees because they’re now uncertain about their future,” Stroup said. “And it’s unfortunate for the school district because it now puts us at a place where we could lose really good people.”

Stroup and Soule also said the Monday meeting would most likely consist largely of discussion and planning, not production of a new budget and vote date — although looking ahead Soule said Tuesday, May 7, was a strong possibility.

“We are going to have to listen and learn and figure out what our next steps are,” Stroup said. “We have to talk about what’s next. What kind of cuts (to make), if any, what to do with the Education Stabilization Fund. That’s possible to be used, but comes with some risk. And if we are going to make cuts, then the administration has to tell us what we’re going to do given the priorities that we set.”

Soule said from the administrators’ point of view, they will be looking for those priorities from the board before they make another spending proposal.

“I think I need to hear from the board what direction they want to head in. The board has all the options in front of them. They can decide to bring the very same budget out. They could decide that the budget needs to be reduced further. Part of that is you’ve got to read the tea leaves of what the message was the voters were trying to send,” Soule said. “I think the meeting on Monday will be more of discussion about a direction.”

Then, she said, the board’s meetings on April 8 and 15 will probably be focused on new spending scenarios and budget adoptions for a likely May vote.

Soule also emailed a statement to the community after the commingled votes were counted on Tuesday night.

It read, in part:

“The Board and Administration will need to regroup and reconsider our next steps carefully. We understand the importance of addressing the needs and concerns of our community while also being mindful of the fiscal responsibilities we bear.

“As we navigate this setback, we want to reassure you that we remain committed to our shared vision of building a kind, collaborative, and creative community that nurtures inclusivity and accessibility for all. While the path forward may be uncertain, we are unwavering in our dedication to serving our community’s best interests.

“Your feedback and input continue to be invaluable to us as we chart our course forward. We will take this opportunity to reflect, listen, and engage with you to identify alternative solutions and approaches that align with our collective goals and aspirations. Though this may be a challenging moment, we remain hopeful and determined.”

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