Closure votes likely on Ferrisburgh, Addison schools

The board (felt) this plan is the best way to move forward not only financially, but also educationally. Kids in all the grades in both the schools will have equal-size cohorts. They’ll have equal access to all the opportunities. — ANWSD Board Chairwoman Sue Rakowski

VERGENNES — Addison and Ferrisburgh residents will almost certainly be asked this fall if they will vote to close the two towns’ elementary schools.

The Addison Northwest School District board is recommending the school closures as part of its plan to consolidate district education in Vergennes Union High and Elementary schools next year.

According to a statement released after an Aug. 22 ANWSD board retreat, board members have not made the final decision to request town-wide votes in the two communities to stop educating students in the two central schools.

But the board is leaning toward making that decision when it meets on Sept. 9 at VUHS at 6 p.m.

The board’s statement reads, in part:

“After careful consideration, the board narrowed the discussion down to several possible options. While no decision has been made, the board favorably discussed the following option: Close Ferrisburgh Central School and Addison Central School. Create a new preschool–4th-grade elementary school at the current Vergennes Union Elementary School building. Utilize the high school building to its full potential by expanding the middle school to include grades 5–8, thereby educating grades 5–12 in the high school building.”

Children in Panton and Waltham attend Vergennes Union Elementary and they, along with taxpayers in those towns, would also be affected.

According to the Articles of Unification that created ANWSD under one-board control out of the former Addison Northwest Supervisory Union, a community school in the district can be closed only with the approval of the residents in its host town, a provision that expires five years after the 2016 unification vote. If closed, the school buildings will be offered back to the towns for $1.

The board will have the power to close district schools as of January 2021, but ANWSD board member and Vergennes Alderman Mark Koenig told his fellow Vergennes City Council members on Tuesday that school board members believed the financial situation demanded they act now.

Failure to do so would put student programming at risk, he said, because major cuts would be necessary to prevent tax increases the board did not expect residents of the five ANWSD towns would accept. Those cuts also would be necessary to avoid a state-imposed penalty for excess per-pupil spending, according to ANWSD officials.

“We don’t think we have two more years to wait in a holding pattern,” Koenig said.

ANWSD Board Chairwoman Sue Rakowski told the Independent the board looked at rising taxes as a major driver of the plan. Taxes are being driven higher by the district’s declining enrollment, which is expected to drop by another 90 students by 2023 (the district went from 1,258 students in 2003 to and expected 760 in 2023).

Fewer students means less state funding for ANWSD, and higher taxes would be required to fill the gap if costs are not cut.

According to the board’s statement, “the board concludes that our district has reached a point where incremental cuts are no longer a fiscally realistic option,” and immediate action is necessary.

“If we take no action, our district budget will continue to increase and we will cross the State’s threshold for per-pupil spending. This will result in additional and significant penalty costs for our taxpayers. If unaddressed this year, these painful cost increases and penalties will further accelerate and compound over future years.”

EDUCATIONAL MOTIVES

But the board also is looking at leveling the playing field in education and in areas like arts and sports as a major benefit to the plan, Rakowski said.

“The board walked away from our meeting on the 22nd feeling this plan is the best way to move forward not only financially, but also educationally,” she said. “Kids in all the grades in both the schools will have equal-size cohorts. They’ll have equal access to all the opportunities.”

Rakowski said the board hopes to establish a new elementary school with its own identity.

“What the board talked about is not moving Ferrisburgh kids to Vergennes, moving Addison kids to Vergennes elementary school. What we talked about was creating a new pre-K-to-4 elementary school at the site of the Vergennes Union Elementary School,” she said. “We envision all of our communities coming together to re-name the school, pick a new mascot, and would like to create some excitement about building a new school and a new community.”

If the ANWSD board formally approves the plan at its Sept. 9 meeting at VUHS (public comment will be welcome when the agenda item is introduced), a vote could be held in Addison and Ferrisburgh in November.

Before such a vote is held Rakowski said the ANWSD board would hold a minimum of three community meetings, with at least one in Addison and one in Ferrisburgh as well as one at VUHS.

If the two towns agree to the plan, all ANWSD students would begin to attend schools in Vergennes next fall, and residents in all five ANWSD towns would vote next March on a 2020-2021 education budget that would reflect the Addison and Ferrisburgh central schools’ closure.

As of earlier this week ANWSD officials could not project exact dollar savings from the plan, although they had projected the consequences of inaction.

“It’s a little hard to predict, as you can imagine. There are just so many variables,” Rakowski said.

But, Rakowski said, “in general terms we would looking at three or four” teachers at each elementary-school grade level that could potentially lose their jobs, as well as other expected staffing cuts and other savings.

FEWER STUDENTS, MORE COSTS

Some estimates are available at anwsd.org under a School Reconfiguration Resources tab that shows why the board is looking at the plan. Enrollment projections show the loss of those 90 district students from the current school year by 2023. Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining current programs is projected to rise by about $3 million while state funding for those 90 students is lost.

According to the board, the combination of lost state revenue and rising costs — many of which are fixed — would inevitably put ANWSD into a per-pupil spending penalty in which district taxpayer would have to foot the bill for an extra dollar in taxes for every dollar in per-pupil spending over a state-imposed limit.

If voters in both Addison and Ferrisburgh approve the proposal, the board would create what Koenig called “an independent middle school” at VUHS. Rakowski said it would occupy essentially the same space as the middle school now occupies at VUHS.

Transportation would be provided to all students, and those costs are not expected to change. Rakowski noted students of all grade levels already ride together on many ANWSD bus routes. Class sizes would remain within the guidelines set in board policy, and a number of classes that are now smaller than called for in those guidelines would increase to meet the policy, according to Rakowski.

The board’s statement after the Aug. 22 retreat outlined a long road to reaching this proposal, with publicized meetings and many chances for public input. Board members said they will continue to reach out, and enrollment and financial data, statements, a list of the other options the board considered, and an FAQ can be found at anwsd.org under the School Reconfiguration Resources tab. Among the FAQs is how ANWSD would deal with a vote to close in one of the two towns.

“We’re looking to be as transparent as possible,” Koenig said at the council meeting.

That data now includes a projection of the cost of doing nothing. ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule said in an email to the Independent that officials are working to better pin down the potential savings.

“We have some preliminary data on anticipated staffing savings (which is only a piece of the overall estimated savings) — but we are planning a more robust data set on this for the Sept. 9 meeting,” Soule wrote.

In the meantime, Rakowski said ANWSD residents will share what she said is the board’s top priority.

“I just want all of our community to come together and support our kids,” she said.

Read the ANWSD board letter on school reconfigurations below.

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

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