Residents push back on potential ANWSD school closures

We are not going to be able to accept your decision if you vote tonight. I would encourage you to try to educate people. — Ferrisburgh’s Kate Yarbrough

VERGENNES — After many of the roughly 200 Addison Northwest School District residents gathered at Vergennes Union High School on Monday questioned a proposal to close Addison and Ferrisburgh central schools, ANWSD board members postponed until Sept. 27 a decision whether to call votes in Addison and Ferrisburgh on the plan.

An affirmative vote to close the schools in each town is required to allow the board to close each elementary school, per ANWSD’s 2016 Articles of Unification. The board is looking at a vote in November or December if it adopts the closure plan.

If both schools do close under the plan, known as Option 3 in board minutes, in the 2020-2021 school year Vergennes Union Elementary School would educate kindergarten through fourth-grade students and VUHS would house a middle school for grades 5-8.

In January 2021 the ANWSU board will be able to close schools without town votes, according to the unification articles. If no longer used for educational purposes, the school buildings will be offered back to the towns for $1.

Some residents at Monday’s meeting said they support the consolidation plan board members are likely to adopt.

But most said the board should have taken more time to present the pluses and minuses of other options considered, especially ones known as Options 4A and 4B that would create a middle school at VUES while closing just Addison’s school, which would save money.

Vergennes resident Jena Santa Maria noted the board chose its preferred option at a six-hour retreat on Aug. 22 and had scheduled the informational forums after Monday’s expected decision to proceed.

“Forums after you’ve already voted feel disingenuous,” Santa Maria said, adding, “The speed and ill-preparedness of this is alarming.”

Board members said under their preferred plan education and extracurricular activities for all students would be improved and opportunities would be equal — and that finances left them little choice.

ANWSU projects 90 fewer district students within four years, meaning less state funding; a $1 million increase in spending in the coming fiscal year assuming the same programs; a roughly $3 million increase in costs by 2023 to preserve programs and keep all four buildings open; and the need to cut $1 million next year to avoid a dollar-for-dollar tax penalty for exceeding a state-imposed per-pupil spending threshold.

According to ANWSD figures, closing the two schools in the 2020-2021 school year could save roughly $2.3 million if the towns accept ownership, or $1.9 million if the district retains possession.

“Unfortunately we’re at a tipping point, and the tipping point is, ‘Are we going to keep the programs or keep the buildings?’” said George Gardner, an ANWSD board member from Ferrisburgh.

Currently ANWSD students in grades 7 through 12 from Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham all attend VUHS; students from Panton, Vergennes and Waltham attend VUES; and young students from Addison and Ferrisburgh attend school in their hometowns.

PROPOSALS

The delay of the decision means the board will hold two informational meetings before it makes its final call at a special meeting on Friday, Sept. 27.

One forum will be held at Addison Central School on Wednesday, Sept. 25, at 6:30 p.m.; that meeting was moved up from the following week. The second is set at Ferrisburgh Central on Thursday, Sept. 26, also at 6:30 p.m. The board will host a third meeting at VUHS on Oct. 8 at 6:30 p.m.

If both towns’ voters agree to the plan, ANWSD residents would vote in March on a 2020-2021 education budget that would reflect the Addison and Ferrisburgh central schools’ closure.

Under the Option 3 plan transportation would be provided to all students; according to the ANWSD website those costs are not expected to change.

According to Superintendent Sheila Soule a preliminary list of “anticipated possible reductions” under Option 3 based on typical staff-to-student ratios totaled 33 positions — that is 19 professional staff, 12 support staff and two administrators.

Residents at the meeting sought more educational and financial information on other possibilities, especially Option 4A and 4B. One would move ANWSD PreK-2 students to FCS, grades 3-5 to VUES, and grades 6-12 at VUHS, plus move ANWSD offices to VUES. ANWSD now spends about $60,000 a year to rent space.

The other would send PreK-4 students to FCS, 5-8 students to VUES, and grades 9-12 and the central office to VUHS.

Both these plans call for closing ACS and are described in board minutes as having comparable “Potential Personnel Savings” of up to $2 million, but do not address infrastructure costs. The grades 5-8 middle school at VUES in the second plan is called “developmentally sound.” In board minutes both plans are knocked because “Transportation for some students is further.”

Vergennes resident Ben Rule said the board should allow residents to “see the real impact of the other scenarios to convince us this (Option 3) is necessary.” Rule added, “There wasn’t a clear presentation” of the other options, and, “If you want our support in this that’s the most important thing.”

Ferrisburgh resident Jeremy Ouimette backed one of the two Option 4s and echoed the call for numbers for the other plans.

“Closing both schools at the same time seems a little drastic,” Ouimette said.

But one Addison resident at the meeting objected to sending young students all the way to Ferrisburgh.

“Addison will not support being bused to Ferrisburgh,” she said.

The list of positives for the board’s preferred Option 3 included, “Saves money, Potential for Middle School Maker Space, ‘Campus Life,’ Access to athletic options, Central location, Transportation infrastructure already exists … (and) Less buildings to maintain.”

COMMENTS

Board members said they had studied the alternatives before selecting Option 3.

Vergennes member Mark Koenig said the board had nowhere else to cut. 

“We cut $250,000 last year and had a hard time doing it,” Koenig said. “We need a new $1 million to cut, and next year we need to cut more, and at some point we need to cut more. This allows us to keep educational quality.”

A former ACS board member, George Lawrence, said other choices put at risk arts, sports and AP courses. “We don’t have enough kids to justify the infrastructure we have,” he said.

Vergennes member Keith Morrill said he had taught around Vermont and learned an important lesson.

“It was never brick and mortar that made a great school,” Morrill said.

Some residents backed the board, even if reluctantly. Ferrisburgh’s Christopher Hill said he studied the choices.

“It was clear to me we don’t have much of a choice,” Hill said.

Several were hesitant about moving 5th- and 6th-graders into the high school, although others were more re-assuring on the issue. 

“We just can’t put 5th-graders in with 8th-graders,” said Barbara Fitzpatrick of Vergennes.

Teacher Melissa Muzzy suggested a compromise of shutting one school to “close the $900,000 gap,” and “see if that works.”

Several referred to what they called the board’s haste and urged a more comprehensive process.

“We are not going to be able to accept your decision if you vote tonight,” said Ferrisburgh’s Kate Yarbrough. “I would encourage you to try to educate people.”

Two people spoke for the students, one of them a parent, Addison resident Michael Howell, who said he had talked to his children and their friends and they liked the idea.

“The kids will be fine. It’s the parents, I think, who have to get over it,” Howell said.

The other was a student representative on the VUHS board, Alder Donovan, who backed Option 3. 

“If that’s the option that would allow us to keep these programs, as a student that’s the option that I would pursue,” Donovan said.

The board eventually backed Ferrisburgh member Bill Clark’s motion to provide more information to and have more dialogue with residents before making a decision.

Clark said the delay would “give the community more time to process the difficulties we’re facing.”

Information about the proposal may be found at anwsd.org under the “School Configuration Resources” Quicklink.

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

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