ANWSD to 'repurpose' Addison School

You (on the ANWSD board) say you want the community to come along with you and yet we’re being dragged along behind you. — Jena Santa Maria

VERGENNES — Opponents of school closure in the Addison Northwest School District suffered two defeats at Monday night’s board meeting.

First, the board rejected, on legal grounds, a pair of petitions seeking a vote to amend the ANWSD’s articles of unification, which would have prevented school closure or reconfiguration without permission of the voters residing in the school’s town.

Then the board adopted a fiscal year 2021 budget proposal that would close Addison Central School for use as an elementary school and repurpose it for alternative education.

LACKING AUTHORITY

The petitions were submitted in early January by members of the organization Rural School Alliance, a vocal opponent of school closures.

According to organizers, the petitions contained signatures of 7% of the district’s registered voters, plenty more than the 5% required by law.

Collecting those signatures had been relatively easy, said Addison resident and RSA member Caetlin Harwood, and organizers had gone out of their way to collect signatures from all five district communities: Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham.

The group worked diligently on their language, said RSA member Jena Santa Maria, who lives in Vergennes and plans to run for a seat on the school board in March (See story on ANWSD board candidates).

“Community members ... consulted an attorney and the Vermont Secretary of State in order to try to ensure compliance with state law,” Santa Maria told the Independent in an email. “The wording of these petitions mirrored the language used by other school districts which have already been voted on by their respective towns.”

In November voters in the Windham Southeast School District, which includes Brattleboro, approved similar amendments to their own articles of agreement.

The Addison Central School District board is currently considering a petition calling for a vote on changes to the ACSD charter that would stipulate that school closure must be backed by a majority vote in the affected town.

No such petitions are pending in the Mount Abraham Unified School District. To close a district school the MAUSD must win a vote in the host town, period.

According to legal advice the ANWSD board heard during an executive session Monday night, the RSA’s petitioned articles relate to matters over which the district’s voters have no authority, explained board chair Sue Rakowski after the meeting.

“The statute indicates which items can be amended by electoral vote and which can be amended by school board vote,” Rakowski told the Independent in an email. “The items included in the submitted petitions are designated as those which can be amended by school board vote, not by the electorate.”

When board discussion resumed after the executive session, Addison board member Laurie Childers said that “when I read the petition I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re taking over our job!’ Like, we have to ask the school district voters to change ...” Childers trailed off, paused, and added, “It seems that statute doesn’t allow that.”

Ferrisburgh representative Bill Clark was not convinced.

“I don’t want to come across as we’re protecting the electorate from themselves,” he said at the meeting. “If (the petitioners) want to bring this forward for a vote I don’t see it as our role to stop that. We’ve received a legal interpretation of this. There are other intelligent interpretations of this, as well. We’ve only really heard just earlier today our attorney’s interpretation of these statutes and I feel like I would have to vote to move these forward.”

Clark was the only one who did so. The board voted 8 to 1 against warning the articles, with one member abstaining.

“I would have needed a very high level of certainty that the petitions were unlawful before I could support rejecting them,” he told the Independent in an email, cautioning that he was speaking for himself and not the board. “I wasn’t able to reach that level of certainty at the meeting, so I voted to support warning these changes.”

While he was disappointed with the result, “I accept and support the process we use when making board decisions.”

During public comment, some district residents raised concerns about the decision.

“The community was trying its best to be above board and follow the democratic process,” said Ferrisburgh resident Carolinne Griffin. “It seemed like you were voting on the petitions themselves and not to warn the vote.”

In a letter to the Independent Ferrisburgh resident Matt Vogel interpreted the board’s actions at the meeting as “We hear you, we don’t care, we’re doing what we want anyway.”

BUDGET PROPOSAL

Later in the meeting, the board approved an FY21 budget to put before voters on Town Meeting Day.

The board has proposed $21,842,595 in total spending, nearly $300,000 less than current year, representing a 1.4% decrease in expenditures, Rakowski told the Independent.

The amount should keep the district below the per-pupil spending threshold set by the state, she said.

But because of declining enrollment numbers, district taxpayers will likely see a slight increase in the equalized union tax rate — approximately 4 cents, Rakowski said.

The budget, which entails closing Addison Central School as an elementary school and hosting alternative education there instead, was one of two budget scenarios the board considered at the meeting. The other would have kept ACS open as an elementary school.

“Both of these budgets are awful, but one of them is better for the students and the taxpayers than the other one,” Rakowski said at the meeting.

One of the deciding factors for Vergennes board representative John Stroup, who supports the adopted budget, was the projected long-term savings, he said during a phone interview.

The Independent will present ANWSD budget details in a future article, once the district has released the relevant financial documents.

“A lot of people think we can’t control the budget, that we’re not making enough cuts,” Stroup said. “But we’re making a lot of cuts, including to some valuable programs.”

The real problem, he said, isn’t overspending. It’s declining enrollment.

“It’s crushing us,” he said. “And there’s no chance for (enrollment) growth. I hate it.”

Clark opposed the budget.

“I voted against the proposed budget primarily out of respect for the results of the November vote,” he told the Independent.

On Nov. 5, Addison voters rejected, 373–123, the ANWSD’s plan to “close Addison Central School for use as an elementary school on June 30, 2020.” Ferrisburgh voters rejected a similar plan to close Ferrisburgh Central School.

In spite of Clark’s wish that the district had chosen another path, he urged support for the adopted budget:

“I believe it is now imperative for all of us to support this budget in order to avoid the additional cuts that could come if the budget fails to pass in March.”

The school board expects to vote on Jan. 22 on a policy change that would direct elementary-age students residing in the town of Addison to attend Vergennes Union Elementary School next year.

During public comment Monday night teacher and Vergennes resident Nancy Ambrose pointed out that before the November vote, ANWSD officials had warned voters — online and with postcards — that repurposing ACS for special education might be one of the results if both Addison and Ferrisburgh voters rejected the plans to close their respective schools.

But school closure opponents suggested the board was ignoring the will of the voters.

“We have to think about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and how does it appear to our community,” Santa Maria said during public comment. “I think this is a horrible, horrible (public relations) strategy. That (includes) not warning those petitions.... You say you want the community to come along with you and yet we’re being dragged along behind you.”

Her husband, Ben Rule, wondered about the usefulness of voting at all.

“What that tells me is that the next time there’s a vote in our community, we don’t know what that really means,” Rule said. “(Voting was) the only way we thought we had to have a voice in this process, and we still couldn’t get that through. So we’re left wondering how do we have a voice, how do we have an impact?”

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com

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