ANWSD residents push back against closure

ADDISON/FERRISBURGH — While the fate of the votes on whether to close Addison and Ferrisburgh central schools remained uncertain late last week (see related story), many in those communities remained deeply skeptical of the Addison Northwest School District board’s proposal to ask them to consider those school closures. 

The ANWSD board has stated its preferred option is to close both schools and educate district students in kindergarten and in grades 1-4 at Vergennes Union Elementary School and create a new middle school for grades 5-8 at Vergennes Union High School. 

A second option could educate the youngest grades at Ferrisburgh Central School and several middle grades at VUES, while moving the district office into one of the schools. 

The first option could save $2.2 million in the first year, while one of the second options could save $1.4 million, according to the board, which also insists future savings would accrue. 

Board members have said that without the closures it would cost about $1 million to maintain current programs, while creating much higher taxes than they believe residents would agree to pay during the coming years. High school programming would be at risk without an elementary school consolidation, they claim. 

ANWSD educates children in Addison, Ferrisburgh, Vergennes, Panton and Waltham.

Information on the plans for closing one or two elementary schools, first proposed in late August, is available at anwsd.org under “School Configuration Resources.” 

Documents available there include the board’s forum presentation and others such as Middle School Resources, Classroom Maps — Where Do They Fit?, Financial Estimates and Cost Planning, Staff Planning Documents, Facilities Planning, and Proposed ANWSD School Reconfiguration — Frequently Asked Questions.

But many residents have said the board presentations and the online resources are inadequate and the process has been rushed, while also defending their rural schools. VUHS middle school teachers also expressed concerns in a letter in this edition of the Independent.

ADDISON CONCERNS

Many of the concerns from Addison were outlined in a citizen-created document presented  to the town’s selectboard last week. They  included the following assertions from school closure detractors: 

•Poor communication from the ANWSD board, which the document said relied on social media rather than letters to each family or a town-wide phone call. 

•The school board’s failure to slow the process and provide a “more in-depth analysis” despite complaints expressed at the series of public forums the board held.

•The closures would leave ANWSD “vulnerable” to merger with other districts. 

•The board’s failure to adequately explain the tax benefits, and a concern taxes will not go down in the long run. 

•That the district would become unstable, resulting in families leaving and not choosing to move in. 

•Concern that the VUES building and the related parking spaces cannot accommodate more students, nor are costs of possible renovations at VUES and VUHS known.   

•Transportation costs could rise.

•Many parents do not want 5th- and 6th-graders to be moved to the high school. 

•How special-needs students are going to be accommodated in the transition is not clear.  

•Other avenues for cutting $1 million could be explored. 

•The budgets for the various scenarios are not clear. 

•Which personnel are staying or leaving and specifics for savings on salaries and benefits have not been made clear. (Note: School officials early last month told the Independenttheir preliminary estimate for staff reductions stood at about 30 if both schools were closed.)

FERRISBURGH MEETING

Ferrisburgh residents at a Sept. 26 informational meeting were also skeptical. Concerns and suggestions included:

•The board’s birthrate projections were too low and did not take into account potential growth from Chittenden County.

•The board’s plan was a three-to-five-year solution that would leave the town without its elementary school.

ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule acknowledged a merger or partnership with another county school district was a possible, even a likely eventual outcome.

•The value of the education offered by FCS and its value to the community would be lost. Kate Yarbrough suggested towns would prefer to keep their “local early education” and shutter VUHS.

Student and town resident Una Fonte said her peers believe that option to be “extremely detrimental,” citing travel time and possible difficulty finding space at other schools.

“We don’t want our high school closed,” she said.  

•Zoning changes or a magnet school could bring more students to Ferrisburgh.

•Finn Yarbrough said many board’s estimates were “fuzzy numbers,” and Aaron Collette said bringing in an outside expert to confirm board figures might instill more public confidence. 

•Asked what it might cost to rework schools to make proposed reconfiguration changes, ANWSD facilities head Ken Sullivan said no firm estimates had been done because of the many possibilities, but “We’re not talking million-dollar renovations.”

•Resident Tim Davis said the $850,000 bonded debt the town of Ferrisburgh would inherit with the FCS building would lower its value, and the district should account for the debt.

•The process has been rushed: One resident suggested the board “slow the roll.”  

Not all opposed the board’s plan. Regular board meeting attendee Lou McLaren said the board had held open, warned meetings and published minutes, and news of possible school closures was no surprise.

McLaren said she was not hearing alternative solutions to the district’s financial dilemma and declining enrollment. 

“There is a $955,000 fiscal issue we need to solve for the next fiscal year. And the discussions we’re having are really looking at future states. We can’t build houses overnight. We can’t convince people to have babies,” she said.

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