Letter to the editor: ANWSD board explains its plans
As many of you know, we the Board of the Addison Northwest School District have asked the voters of Ferrisburgh and Addison to consider closing their schools. We want to make clear why we are doing this and why we haven’t acted in other ways.
It is worth stating that our responsibility is to ensure that the district is providing the best education for all students in our care. Our vision statement reads, “We envision a kind, collaborative, and creative community for all that nurtures a diverse and accessible learning environment. Students will flourish as critical thinkers and productive citizens, cultivating resilience in an ever-changing world.”
An ever-changing world is our current reality. Our society is continually undergoing complicated changes, and we as a school district must constantly balance regulations from the state with the fact that Addison County — like Vermont and New England — has declining populations. In four years’ time, we are projected to have 90 fewer students than right now, a decrease of 11 percent in our student population. This is a continuation of a larger trend that has already seen our district population drop by 29 percent (344 students) over 11 years (2008 – 2019). We once served 1,194 students; by 2023 we will serve 760. These population drops are shaping our reality, and the repercussions are significant and unignorable, and they are the primary drivers behind the changes we have proposed.
To ignore them will result in a serious financial burden for our communities. The time has come for our district to make serious changes to account for these dramatic shifts in the legal and demographic landscape. We need to operate our schools in a way that reflects the world in which they today operate, not the world in which they once operated.
A number of people have asked us why has the board advocated for such drastic action so quickly. To answer this, we need to look back at the district’s recent history. In the last five years, this district has made significant progress recovering from and navigating through challenging circumstances. In 2014, we were still roiling from financial messes created at the end of the Superintendent Tom O’Brien era while also just beginning Act 46 consolidation. Our previous superintendent, JoAn Canning, skillfully guided us through that process and steered our financial ship in the right direction. Under new leadership, we are positioned to do more. In the last year, our current superintendent, Sheila Soule, has done incredibly valuable work developing systems to effectively evaluate the curriculum, assessment, and teaching within the district. We have a stronger grasp of the curricular needs of the schools, of the way that imbalances in the curriculum have limited equitable outcomes for our students, and we have a stronger sense of our conditions (including financial projections, building capacity, infrastructure needs) moving forward. Thanks to our Director of Finance and Operations Elizabeth Jennings we also are on sound financial footing, with clean audits for the first time in years. We are grateful for these developments.
The fact that we were not dealing with crisis gave us the opportunity to look ahead. The road we saw before us was filled with looming challenges. In the coming fiscal year, we are facing a substantial increase in our costs of approximately $955,000. This increase is driven by a number of factors over which we have little control: increase in costs of health care, fuel, insurance and transportation, and salary increases. These rising costs will compound over time.
In other words, our budgets keep growing and our student numbers keep shrinking. We passed our last budget by six votes. We watch our local representatives struggle to balance municipal budgets, trying to minimize tax increases beyond what the school budget requires. Because our elementary-level education is spread across three buildings, we have been unable to reduce the cost of operating schools at the same rate at which we are losing students. As our student body continues to shrink, we will surpass the per-pupil spending rate that the state allows us. In other words, we have two options: cut the budget or get more students and families. Not in the future, but now. In May and then August we considered a number of scenarios to take advantage of excess capacity in the schools and chose to move forward to request votes from Addison and Ferrisburgh regarding the future of their school buildings. Believe us, we on the board recognize the apprehension some may feel at the proposal. We are part of this community, our children went or still go to these schools, and some of us went to these schools ourselves. We did not arrive at this proposal lightly.
Many have asked why this is so aggressive. Why don’t we slow the process down, wait a year, and conduct a number of studies about how this would impact our communities? Why not wait until July 1, 2021, when the school board will have the power to close the schools without the approval of the towns thereby saving everyone a lot of grief and anxiety? There are two problems with this. First, by waiting, we would be forced to make significant cuts to our school programs throughout the next two budget seasons. These cuts are likely to hit especially hard at the high school, where we currently offer more variety and electives for older students to explore. It is not that we prioritize high school education over elementary — we value and want to preserve both as much as possible. “Non-essential” programs (that is to say those not legally required) such as world languages, AP classes, Walden, and all levels of athletics and the arts would need to be reconsidered, as well as transportation and after school care/enrichment at the elementary level. Second, we believe that our system works best as part of a democratic process. We would rather you support our proposals than not. It is your school district, and you should have a say in how it works.
So far, we have articulated this as a negative — shrink or cut — but we also see some real benefits to reorganization.
Reorganization does three things for us. First, it keeps a healthy balance of resources going towards all levels of education. Second, it brings students of the same grade together. This will make it easier for there to be consistency and equitable access to education across grade levels. Third, it allows for the creation of a distinct middle school in the grades 5–8 range; research shows that a stronger middle school model is developmentally advantageous for adolescents.
There are details yet to be finalized. We do not have final budgets developed for the next five years because our budgets rely partly upon annual decisions made at the state level. We cannot yet predict exactly how this will affect traffic patterns. We do not know which plan we are moving forward with next year because we are asking for your direct approval. While the administration has considered several options for classroom configurations within those schools, when the time comes, we want those decisions to be made by the experts who do the actual work of the schools: the teachers and the administration. These are details that can be worked out once the bigger decisions have been made. But we do have budget projections if we do not change and they are not good.
We don’t minimize the changes and uncertainty this brings or the difficulty this presents for our towns. We are you, you are us. But our job — the thing you elected us to do — is to ensure our students equitable access to growth and learning opportunities that you — we — can afford. We haven’t finalized all the details, but we believe that for the health of the education that we care for, it is essential to make changes.
Sue Rakowski, ANWSD Board Chair
on behalf of the Addison Northwest School District Board of Directors