ANWSD finds it doesn't need to cut $1M after all

Sometimes these conversations have been difficult, and likely there’s going to continue to be challenging times, but I think one thing that’s clear is that we all care about our students and that is why we’re here. — School board chair Sue Rakowski

VERGENNES — Some financial projections have changed in the Addison Northwest School District recently — in the district’s favor.

For months, the ANWSD board and administrators anticipated that the district would need to cut $955,000 from next year’s budget in order to avoid incurring a tax penalty for exceeding the state-mandated per-pupil-spending threshold.

Consequently the school district proposed closing Addison Central School (ACS) and Ferrisburgh Central School (FCS) next year, in order to save money, but on Nov. 5 voters in those two towns rejected the idea.

Now, owing to a number of factors, the ANWSD finds that it will not need to cut $955,000 after all — only $470,000.

The Independent requested more information about the change from ANWSD Director of Finance and Operations Elizabeth Jennings and ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule, but they did not respond by deadline.

One potentially cost-saving measure administrators said they were exploring at a Monday evening meeting was to offer early retirement to teachers who have worked in the district at least 17 years. That amounts to 36 people.

THREE SCENARIOS

With this new number in mind, the ANWSD board has requested drafts of three different budgets, which it will discuss at its Dec. 9 meeting.

• A level-program budget for keeping all students and staff in the same buildings they’re currently located in: K-6 at ACS, preK-6 at FCS, K-6 at Vergennes Union Elementary School (VUES) and 7-12 at Vergennes Union High School (VUHS). This has been known as the “do nothing” budget and is now in its third revision. In this scenario the district would raise taxes instead of cutting the $470,000. At a school board meeting Monday evening, Jennings estimated that this would lead to a 10-cent tax rate increase, including the state spending penalty.

The state sets a per-pupil spending rate each year and if a district spends more than that amount, it charges the district based on the overage.

• The same budget as above, but with $470,000 in cuts. Jennings estimated that this would bring the district below the per-pupil spending threshold and lead to a tax increase of only 1 cent.

• A budget incorporating a center for alternative education, to be established at Addison Central School. In this scenario, ACS students would attend FCS (preK-6) or VUES (K-6), and VUHS would continue to house 7-12.

The board also discussed moving grades 5-6 from all three elementary schools to the middle school for the 2021–2022 school year.

“No action was taken, either on configuration or budget,” ANWSD board chair Sue Rakowski told the Independent in an email. “We await the draft budgets to inform those decisions.”

Rakowski pointed out that any budget the ANWSD adopts must provide funding for the district to continue working toward the goals outlined on the district continuous improvement plan, which established the following goals:

• Students reach proficiency on academic measures of achievement.

• Students experience a safe and healthy environment for learning.

• Investment priorities reflect the district vision and goals developed through the Continuous Improvement Planning process.

At its Dec. 9 meeting, the school board also expects to make a decision about where to house the Central Office.

ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION

Because of changes in state funding models, an alternative education program embedded at the Counseling Services of Addison County (CSAC) will not be allowed next year. It currently serves approximately 15 county students in grades 7-12.

“These are students that come from a tough background, either trauma or neglect or abuse, and need a slightly different flexible way to access their education,” said ANWSD Director of Support Services Kara Griswold at Monday night’s meeting.

In order to maintain funding next year, those students would need to be educated on a school campus somewhere in the county.

ANWSD officials are looking at the possibility of converting Addison Central School from an elementary school to an alternative education site that could accommodate the county students who are currently commuting to CSAC.

“Our district would operate as the fiscal agent, providing some of the education staff and generating memoranda of understanding with the other districts for facility costs,” explained ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule in an email to the Independent.

The current program at CSAC uses the equivalent of five classrooms and a kitchen, Griswold said at the meeting.

Staffing at the proposed alternative education site would consist of a STEM teacher, a humanities teacher, a director licensed to provide special education services, a part-time board-certified behavior analyst supervising two behavior interventionists, and a Medicaid-funded counselor from a community-based provider.

“The educational goals for the program will be to provide for the academic, social and emotional needs through project-based learning opportunities,” Soule said.

At the very least, such a program at ACS would be budget-neutral, said ANWSD officials. But there is also the possibility of earning revenue from students who may tuition in from other counties.

If the ANWSD chooses not to pursue this option it’s likely that the ACSD or MAUSD will, Griswold predicted at the meeting.

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT

“Our decisions moving forward for fiscal year 2021 and beyond will be guided by all the input that has been received and all the input that will be received,” Rakowski said at Monday night’s meeting. “Sometimes these conversations have been difficult, and likely there’s going to continue to be challenging times, but I think one thing that’s clear is that we all care about our students and that is why we’re here.”

Over the past three months the board and its Community Engagement Committee (CEC) have sought as much feedback as possible, through a variety of avenues, said Kristina MacKulin, the committee’s chair.

“The next task of the CEC, at the direction of the entire school board, is to conduct future engagement opportunities related to what comes next for our district and our future,” she said. “This engagement will include public meetings and most likely surveys.”

The CEC will meet in December to begin planning a series of meetings and discussions for January and February, as well as to develop an outline and questions for the rest of the year.

“We are anxious to continue the conversation about what the future holds for our students, staff,families and community members and are hopeful that many people will want to join in these conversations.”

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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