ANWSD towns deny school closure votes

People have a lot of questions … This all happened really quickly. — Addison Selectboard Chairman Jeff Kauffman

FERRISBURGH/ADDISON — After Tuesday night not only the future of Addison and Ferrisburgh central schools is uncertain, but so also is the future of the planned votes on whether to close them.

The Addison Northwest School District Board had asked selectboards in both towns at their Tuesday meetings to warn Nov. 5 school closure votes.

The board has said closing the two schools is the best way to provide educational equity for all ANWSD students; maintain programs, especially at Vergennes Union High School; and avoid a tax increase that residents likely would not support a year after its current budget won by just six votes.

The ANWSD board considered the requests routine and legally binding, but on Tuesday both towns’ selectboards declined to warn the Nov. 5 votes.

The ANWSD board said it had legal advice that the selectboards were obligated to warn the votes, while at least the Ferrisburgh board said it received legal counsel it was not required to do so.

But according to Will Senning, the Director of Elections and Campaign Finance in the Vermont Secretary of State’s office, the two selectboards should have honored the ANWSD board’s requests.

Senning researched the issue at the request of the Independent. In a Wednesday afternoon email Senning wrote,

“After reviewing the statute (16 VSA 722) and the Articles of Agreement it is my opinion that the selectboards in Ferrisburgh and Addison are obligated to warn these votes, and any other ANWSD election, when requested to do so by the unified union board.”

That statute reads, in part: “The functions of the legislative branch of each preexisting school district in warning meetings and conducting elections of unified union school district board members shall be performed by the corresponding board of alderpersons of a city or city council, the selectboard of a town, or the trustees of an incorporated school district as appropriate.”

Senning wrote:

“The legislature enacted this language and chose to use the word ‘shall,’ making it clear that the selectboards do not have the discretion to choose not to perform this role. The law makes sense in that, because there are no longer individual school boards within each town to administer the school district related votes, that the selectboard is the most appropriate entity to fulfill this role. The legislature decided that this was the best manner in which to administer elections in the context of these unified union districts.

“The ANWSD is responsible for the costs of the election, and for preparation of the Warning and the ballot.”

SELECTBOARD POSITIONS

Longtime Addison Selectboard Chairman Jeff Kauffman said the board did not warn the vote because board members and many town residents believed there were too many loose ends in what they and town officials also thought was a rushed process.

“They just didn’t think people had enough time. There were too many unanswered questions. They were looking for some kind of budget projections, looking for possibly more options,” Kauffman said. “People have a lot of questions … This all happened really quickly.”

Ferrisburgh Selectboard Chairman Rick Ebel said that town’s board would be willing to warn a vote — even quickly with a special meeting — if the ANWSD board provides more information about how things would look financially and organizationally under different school closure scenarios.

“We have a responsibility when we make decisions to do so on information that we feel is accurate and complete as possible. We understand that we can’t have every answer. But there are some gaps that were articulated by other members of the board,” Ebel said.

He added that the selectboard understands the school board’s tight timetable — it must know by December which schools will open next year in order to prepare a budget in January in time to warn it for a March vote.

“I hope that was clear last night, too,” Ebel said. “We understand that concern. We understand the big picture here. But there were some details that were being asked for. And I’m confident that the school board and the school administration will respond to that.”

But the selectboards and school board — and their attorneys — disagree about the legality of not warning the votes.

ANWSD Board Chairwoman Sue Rakowski said according to the school board’s attorney the selectboards had nothing to decide.

“They didn’t have a decision to make, actually, is what our understanding is,” Rakowski said. “It’s really not open to debate by the selectboards is the legal advice we have received.”

Rakowski added she believed selectboards were not allowing residents a chance to make up their own minds if they had enough information to cast their votes.

“That is exactly how I feel. We are asking all the voters in these towns to make a decision that impacts the future of the school and the kids,” she said.

ANWSD administrators also forwarded VSA 16 722 to the Independent.

Ebel said the Ferrisburgh selectboard consulted before its meeting with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns’ legal department and its town attorney.

The selectboard also emailed part of Vermont’s Open Meeting statute to the Independent. It reads in part, “A public body may table or otherwise postpone an item on their meeting agenda when necessary, as in situations where additional information is needed before a decision may be made.”

Meanwhile, on Wednesday the ANWSD board had yet to chart its next move. Its next scheduled meeting is Oct. 14, but Rakowski said one possibility is a special meeting before then to discuss the options of rescheduling or abandoning the closure votes. It is unclear if a third informational meeting on board plans will be held as scheduled at Vergennes Union Elementary School on Tuesday, Oct. 8.; but it seemed unlikely on Wednesday.

“We’re trying to identify the possibilities. We don’t have any decisions at this point,” Rakowski said.

PLAN DETAILS

ANWSD comprises Vergennes, Ferrisburgh, Addison, Waltham and Panton. It’s schools are Vergennes Union High School, Vergennes Union Elementary School, Ferrisburgh Central School and Addison Central School.

ANWSD board members decided this past Friday to schedule the Nov. 5 votes to close the two elementary schools. That vote followed public forums the two days before in Addison and Ferrisburgh that included board presentations describing the school closures as the best way to preserve student programming without unacceptable tax increases.

Programs at risk would be “especially at the high school, such as athletics, arts, World Language, AP courses, Walden program, afterschool care/enrichment, transportation,” according to the presentation.

Board members have presented estimates showing ANWSD would have to increase spending by $955,000 in the 2020-2021 school year to maintain offerings at the four schools due to expected spending increases in areas such as health insurance and salaries. The state will also supply less per-pupil revenue because of the district’s declining enrollment.

Closing both schools would save about $2.2 million in the coming school year, according to board estimates, while another option that would cluster younger students in Ferrisburgh could save $1.44 million.

The board can vote to close the schools on its own, but not until July 2021. It called for the Nov. 5 votes despite residents’ pleas at last week’s forums supporting their small rural schools and asking the board to slow the process and consider other options.

But Rakowski told the Independent the board had been studying options for months and decided the immediate fiscal crisis required a prompt and decisive solution.

“Reducing the number of buildings we operate for educational purposes appears to be the best option in order to maintain student programming and opportunities for all our students, Pre-K through 12,” Rakowski said.

The board said a proposal for the next school year that included current programming would also trigger a state per-pupil spending tax penalty.

Rakowski was asked if some who have been skeptical of the school closings were being realistic about many ANWSD taxpayers’ willingness to support higher tax rates. She declined comment.

VOTE IMPLICATIONS

If voters eventually agree to close both schools they will not reopen for educational purposes in September 2020. ANWSD will offer them back to each town for $1. Addison Central School is not encumbered by debt, while Ferrisburgh Central School, if the town accepted it, would come with $850,000 of bonded debt that predates district unification.

If both schools close, the board would ask students from pre-kindergarten through grade 4 to attend what is now VUES. Grades 5-8 would attend a newly organized middle school at VUHS.

ANWSD administrators and board members said grouping students at this level is developmentally appropriate, and the middle school would have a separate entrance and different class and lunch times than the high school. Some residents have said they hesitate to send younger students to VUHS. Students from grades 9-12 would remain at VUHS.

Board members prefer this plan not only because of its financial benefits, but also because they believe it would create equal educational and extracurricular opportunities for students.

If Addison should close and Ferrisburgh doesn’t, the board could adopt another plan, which some residents have said they prefer and would save an estimated $1.44 million.

It could send pre-K to grade 2 students to Ferrisburgh, 3-5 to VUES, 6-12 to VUHS, and move the ANWSD office into one of the schools.

What ANWSD officials insist is clear is that the full $955,000 — a figure that would increase to $2.1 million to preserve programs in the 2021-2022 year, according to the board — cannot be made up with four schools open without drastic cuts.

If the two smallest schools do not close Rakowski said they will not look the same.

“Board policy (now) dictates a home school for each student based on their residency and defines which grade levels are taught within each building. So changes in board policy can allow for changes in either of those areas,” she said.

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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