Some ANWSD residents seek charter change

Amending the articles of agreement is the only way to protect our right to vote on reconfiguration and consolidation, so that these pivotal decisions cannot be made without taking the future of the community as a whole into consideration. — Kate Yarbrough

VERGENNES — Less than a month after voters in Addison and Ferrisburgh defeated a proposal by the Addison Northwest School District to close Addison Central School (ACS) and Ferrisburgh Central School (FCS), a citizens group has launched a campaign to amend the ANWSD articles of agreement in a manner that would give district residents more power in deciding the fate of their local schools.

“It’s time to re-evaluate how we want to be making decisions regarding our children,” said Addison resident Caetlin Harwood, who is a member of the Rural School Alliance, or RSA. “Making these amendments gives some local control back to the people.”

The RSA has suggested amendments that would address two specific issues.

First, despite the results of the Nov. 5 vote — more than 81 percent of Addison and Ferrisburgh voters opposed closing the schools — the ANWSD board retains the authority to “reconfigure” grades and classrooms in a way that would remove all of the elementary school children from one school and require them to attend a different one.

In one scenario currently under consideration by the school board, ACS would cease to be an elementary school altogether next year, and the building would be used instead as an alternative education site for grades 7–12.

Second, on July 1, 2021, the board will have the authority to close any district school without voter approval.

The RSA’s proposal would give some decision-making power back to the voters.

“These amendments allow everyone to have a say,” Harwood said. “Whether it be a taxpayer, parent, grandparent or community member, their decision will be directly taken into account for any decisions regarding school closures or reconfiguration. Closing schools is one of the biggest decisions a community can make — why would we not want a say in that?”

The group is proposing changes to two of the ANWSD’s Articles of Agreement:

Article 4, “Existing School Facilities and Real Property,” if amended, would prohibit the closure of any district school unless all of the following conditions are met:

• The district conducts a one-year study on student impacts — such as travel time and costs, student extracurricular activity participation and food program participation — and on broader impacts to the community. In the first six months of the study, the district would be required to solicit community input during at least three public forums. Within three months of the final forum, the district would be required to compile a report outlining impact assessments and proposals for mitigating the negative effects of school closure. This report would need to be presented to the electorate at least 30 days prior to warning a vote to close a school.

• A majority of the school board must support the school-closure plan.

• School reconfiguration or closure must be approved by the majority of the voters in the towns affected by the reconfiguration or closure.

Article 2, “Grades to Be Operated,” if amended, would require that similar conditions be met before the school board undertakes “reconfiguration,” which would be defined as “eliminating all classrooms for any grade or grades, pre-kindergarten through grade 12, operated at one or more schools and requiring children in the grade or grades to attend classrooms located in a different school.”

Ferrisburgh resident and RSA member Kate Yarbrough supports the amendments.

“The voters of Ferrisburgh turned out in record-breaking numbers on Nov. 5 to send a resounding message to the ANWSD board opposing the closure of our elementary school,” she said.

“Amending the articles of agreement is the only way to protect our right to vote on reconfiguration and consolidation, so that these pivotal decisions cannot be made without taking the future of the community as a whole into consideration.”

Vergennes resident and RSA member Jena Santa Maria-Rule said the amendments give communities more control.

“Even given the monumental voter turnout in Addison and Ferrisburgh, and the loud ‘no’ vote to closing ACS and FCS, the school board is still considering reconfiguring ACS and essentially closing it as an elementary school,” she said. “Amending the Articles of Agreement to allow for any proposed school closure and/or reconfiguration to be decided by a five-town vote puts the power back to the voters in our community. It is the true embodiment of democracy and will force the school board to meaningfully engage with our community.”

The RSA is hoping to place the amendments on the March 3 Town Meeting Day ballot.

5 PERCENT OF VOTERS

According to Will Senning, Vermont’s Director of Elections and Campaign Finance, the group must first collect signatures from at least 5% of the district’s voters, regardless of their town of residence.

The RSA, hoping to take that one step further, plans to collect signatures from at least 7 percent of the registered voters of each town, which would amount to 76 from Addison, 159 from Ferrisburgh, 37 from Panton, 139 from Vergennes and 27 from Waltham.

As of last month, a majority of the district’s registered voters (53.7%) live in Addison and Ferrisburgh.

In a related action last month, voters in the Windham Southeast School District, which includes Brattleboro, approved similar amendments to their own articles of agreement.

And a similar campaign is under way in the Addison Central School District, where a group called “Save Our Schools ACSD” is hoping to give voters in the seven ACSD-member communities more power to preserve their local elementary schools (click here to read that story).

The RSA has found it reassuring that they’re not alone in this, Harwood said.

“The ANWSD unification committee did a great job back in 2016, but hindsight is always 20/20 and now we find ourselves at this crossroads,” she said. “When we unified, there were certain parts of the process that erased opportunities for community involvement and these proposed changes will give those opportunities back.”

Petitions -- one for each proposed amendment -- will be available for perusal at several locations throughout the district, including the Ferrisburgh, Panton and Waltham town offices, West Addison General Store, Addison Four Corners Store, Gilfeather’s Fine Provisions in Ferrisburgh, BJ Farm Supply in Panton and 3 Squares Cafe in Vergennes.

Amending the ANWSD’s Articles of Agreement is not likely to help the district gain a better financial footing, however.

In August the school board announced that it would need to cut $955,000 from next year’s budget to avoid a state-imposed per-pupil-spending penalty, and it had proposed closing ACS and FCS to help control costs.

Though that $955,000 has in recent weeks been revised down to $470,000 (click here to see our story), the board has indicated that school consolidation of some kind is unavoidable if the district wants to preserve educational programming and avoid unsustainable property tax increases.

For more information about the Rural School Alliance, email ruralschoolalliance@gmail.com.

Note: This story has been updated to reflect a recent change in the RSA petition's wording. Whereas before it indicated that "The closure must be supported by a majority of the voters residing in each of the five towns in the district," it will now say that "School reconfiguration or closure must be approved by the majority of the voters in the towns affected by the reconfiguration or closure."

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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