Letter to the editor: ANWSD board explains school merger rationale

We, the elected members of the Addison Northwest School District board, are parents, community members, and dedicated public servants. We are tasked with ensuring a rich and robust education for all district students in a way that is affordable to our communities and abides by local, state, and federal requirements. At times we are presented with challenging situations and we are grateful when the Addison Independent helps advance the difficult discussions.

For years, we have discussed declining enrollment and rising costs during our public meetings. Some of these conversations have been captured by the Addison Independent (April 2018: “ANWSD board to seek input on district challenges.”) and others are documented in meeting minutes or recordings. The “realities of limited finances” are not new to our school district. In fact, these realities have reached a critical point and we no longer have the option of postponing action.

Birth rates in our five-town community have fallen from between 90 and 100 births per year prior to 2008 to between 60 and 70 births per year since. That is 30 fewer babies each year, or 30 fewer students per grade, which translates into 390 fewer K–12 students by the time the babies born in 2007 graduate from VUHS in 2024. Fewer students means less revenue to operate our district, yet costs continue to rise.

Make no mistake: it is not a matter of strong versus weak communities. We would never pit our schools against one another to compete on student outcomes. Academic success for all our students is a district goal we undertake alongside budgeting and facility use. Our ANWSD five-town community is one of the strongest in the state. Page through the Addison Independent to read about our students and graduates who raise money for charities, win state sports titles, and excel both statewide and nationally. This is not an issue derived from community weakness, but from an aging and decreasing population as well as economic forces outside of our control.

While our community has historically been supportive of our schools and their accompanying budgets, our taxpayers have indicated a need for relief. Last year’s district budget, which raised taxes by $0.09, passed by a mere six votes. What is the likelihood that voters will approve a projected $0.18 increase, the amount necessary to maintain the status quo? We continue to pursue savings by combining and reconfiguring district administrative positions. In recent years, we have made repeated reductions at the middle and high school and have tried making cuts at the elementary level, but the high fixed costs of running three elementary schools puts the entire ANWSD K–12 system at risk.

After examining the data, projections, and community input, we identified three options for immediate consideration:

1) Put forth a budget that raises taxes twice the amount they increased last year;

2) Reduce spending by cutting non-mandated programming such as transportation, athletics, world languages, alternative programs, and the arts; or,

3) Consolidate our students into fewer buildings in order to save money on facilities and duplicated services, preserve programming, and create new opportunities for elementary school students.

Reconfiguration is the proposed solution. Every reconfiguration scenario was submitted by community members and/or teachers last year during community engagement events and surveys. The board examined the academic impact and cost of those ideas brought forward. We determined that the consolidation of our elementary students is the BEST OPTION in our necessary efforts to control costs and avoid negative impact to the quality of the education delivered throughout ANWSD.

This decision addresses the immediate financial challenges, declining enrollment trends, and rising property taxes we face today, and best positions us now in order to continue to prioritize vital educational programs and resources as we approach and realize demographic stabilization in a few years. Above all, we believe the school board and community must continue working together towards a fair and orderly process during these important times.

We are thankful for the questions and suggestions received from community members and appreciative of the respectful discourse that continues. We invite people to fact check our data, all of which is posted online and available in hard copies upon request. We have hosted three community forums over the past five weeks, one of which is available to view online. The work of our business office is verified for accuracy every year through an independent audit. Our demographic information and projections have been verified by a career demographer at an independent council. There is zero evidence to indicate any of our schools will attract a significant number of new students in the near future, let alone before the start of the next school year.

These are the tough choices that we have been grappling with for years. We understand the frustrations of our neighbors. None of us want to close schools, but we must take action to address this issue. We are reluctant but unanimous in our recommendation that voters choose to reconfigure our district. To be clear: we are doing the job that we were elected to do. This “job” entails tackling the fiscal realities of a loss of future revenues, increased costs, and a declining student population over the next five years. It is for this reason that we are asking the voters of Ferrisburgh and Addison to vote on Nov. 5.

Respectfully,

Susan Rakowski

Vergennes

Chairperson

On behalf of the

Addison Northwest School District Board of Directors

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Addison County Independent

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Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802.388.4944
Fax: 802.388.3100