Facilities Master Plan FAQs
Last Updated on January 31, 2022
Click on the arrow to the right of each question to view the answer.
“How did we get here?” -- Background Information & Questions About Why ACSD is Creating a Facilities Master Plan
1. What is the purpose of the facilities master plan?
Guided by the work of our ACSD Strategic Plan and our transition to becoming an International Baccalaureate World District, the Facilities Master Plan will ensure that investments in our buildings support student learning objectives. The ACSD Board has recognized the enrollment challenges facing the District, and wants to be deliberate in the investigation and planning work to identify the best long-term solutions for our students, our schools, and our community.
2. Why is the ACSD Board considering closing some small schools?
The Board is investigating school closure for a number of reasons. Our continued declining enrollment resulting in operating under-enrolled schools presents a number of challenges, both educationally and financially. Educationally, it is difficult to offer the breadth of quality programming and services for a small number of students. Using itinerant educators for such classes as physical education and music, as well as for nursing, special education and behavior intervention poses challenges. It is also harder to attract quality applicants for itinerant positions.
Low enrolled schools also have trouble maintaining an optimum age-grade size cohort group, requiring schools to move to more combined classrooms with a much broader range of ages, academic, and developmental levels.
Looking more broadly, as our enrollment continues to drop, our per pupil costs will continue to rise, and those costs drive tax rates up. For instance, the initial FY22 budget was over the state mandated maximum spending threshold by $535,406, which would have resulted in an additional tax increase of 3 cents per $100 of household value. There is a tax penalty for exceeding the per pupil threshold, and the only reason ACSD was able to avoid that penalty was because it had enough reserve funds to cover the excess cost. The District will not always have enough money in reserve to prevent this from happening, and it will be difficult to create future budgets that do not exceed this threshold once it is crossed.
In order to stay within those spending boundaries, we continually face the dilemma of cutting educational services to keep our tax rates below the maximum threshold. Part of the challenge is driven by operating so many buildings, each of which has to be adequately staffed to provide a quality education – these are unavoidable fixed costs. And if the State spending threshold does not increase at the same pace as our rising expenses, we will always be susceptible to tax penalties.
3. Are other districts in Vermont going through this same process?
Yes. Since the passage of Act 46, which mandated school governance unification, many new unified boards have continued to see declines in enrollment. They have also discovered that rural school boards often traded building maintenance for keeping programs in place and tax rates stable while enrollment declined, leading to an enormous amount of building needs across the state. Nearby, the Brandon-area schools have consolidated K-6 education in three towns to two schools, the Mount Abe Union School District is proposing a phased transition beginning with repurposing three elementary schools and potentially merging with the Addison Northwest School District to consolidate their middle and high schools. The Addison Northwest School District additionally continues to discuss elementary school closure models. The Harwood Unified Union School District approved an initial design plan for developing a bond, and in this plan one elementary school would close. These are just a few examples.
4. Why are education costs increasing?
There are many costs that are fixed and increasing, including contracted salary increases for employees, statewide negotiated employee health insurance up 10 percent in FY22, utility costs on all buildings and transportation (up 15 percent in FY22), as well as keeping up with building maintenance. Our per-pupil spending has also been increasing, in part, due to continued declining enrollment. While our elementary cohorts are stabilizing at 115-120, as we graduate larger cohorts we will see a continued overall decline in the number of pupils in our district. The school district has offset some of these increases by adjusting staffing levels based on declining enrollment, which has resulted in more combined classrooms and fewer paraprofessionals. ACSD, like other districts in Vermont, faces state spending limits that are outpaced by rapidly increasing operational expenses. For instance, the FY22 budget provided a per-pupil cost of $19,254 – only a 1.08% spending increase from the prior fiscal year, but was achieved by REDUCING a net of 5.6 licensed teaching positions (reducing 7 and adding a new 1.4) and 8 support staff positions through natural attrition.
5. Wasn’t unification supposed to lower costs?
It was and it has, however, other costs continue to rise. In many ways, unification has allowed the District to be more flexible in staffing all of our schools in a systematic way rather than each school staffing itself independently, leading to savings. There have also been savings in the back-office functions such as audits and other financial requirements. However, these savings have not been able to keep up with increases in employment contracts, health insurance, transportation, and declining enrollment, which is used to calculate per pupil spending.
6. How did our facilities get to the point where they needed such significant investment?
Statewide, many local school boards deferred major building work in order to keep programs funded and property tax rates in check. This probably coincides with the state Agency of Education ending its aid program that often provided 30 percent funding for major building projects. It ended about 20 years ago. Our hope would be that in coming years schools nationwide will be considered public infrastructure and get the federal funding that they need.
7. Unification was seen as a way to be stronger together. How is the master plan serving that end?
There are various educational benefits of unification further discussed in the following section. Additionally, the facilities master plan represents a look at our school district as a single system as a way to address the challenges of declining enrollment, increased per pupil costs and building needs, and to maximize our limited resources to provide students with optimal learning environments. Under the former system of individual school districts, eight school boards would be working in isolation, trying to deal with these challenges on their own.
8. How is tuition money utilized by the district and how does it affect per-pupil cost?
Tuition income is treated as revenue to the district. It is set at a level to offset the expense of educating the students. Tuition students are not counted in our calculation of equalized pupils (a weighted student number), although the revenue offsets expenses.
9. How accurate are enrollment trends and forecasts?
Population and enrollment trends have been studied in depth at the state level. Locally, much of that information is carried forward, such as local birthrates and in-migration, as well as keeping a census of preschool-age children (and infants and toddlers as best as possible).
“Is this about Facilities or Students?” -- Questions About the Educational Reasons Behind the Facilities Master Plan
1. Are there examples of educational initiatives that the Facilities Master Plan will help to address? What will we gain?
Unification allowed for a more streamlined approach to student services and staffing, and the Facilities Master Plan will allow us to develop an even more coordinated system of services at a scale that we can staff with full-time employees who are specialists in their fields. Dr. Vicki Wells, ACSD's former Director of Student Services, speaks in detail about the ways ACSD is striving to meet the needs of all students in the ACSD EChat: Increasing Supports and Services for our Students, and the exciting possibilities fewer school buildings can provide to our students. We invite you to check out our ACSD EChat: Increasing Educational Opportunity, Equity, and Success for All Students with Dr. Caitlin Steele, Assistant Superintendent and Director of Teaching and Learning for ACSD. Around the 11 minute mark Caitlin speaks to the challenges our educators currently face, and how those challenges will be reduced with fewer schools and larger more stable grade-level classes. Caitlin talks about the vision of possibilities to better support our educators with area specialists to enable our educators better tools and skills to work with students both who need more support and more of a challenge.
2. It seems like the Board is more concerned about money and buildings instead of education. Can you show me evidence to the contrary?
In the two EChats referenced in the prior question, ACSD EChat: Increasing Supports and Services for our Students, and ACSD EChat: Increasing Educational Opportunity, Equity, and Success for All Students, Board Chair Mary Cullinane talks with two ACSD education leaders about the needs of students and educational goals of our district and how our physical and financial realities need to be addressed to better serve our students.
3. What is the Board’s vision of facilities that support the highest educational opportunities for our students?
The ACSD Board aspires to provide our students with learning environments that are diverse, have optimum classroom sizes that allow for single-grade groupings, that provide students the resources they need to succeed, that are inviting and healthy learning spaces, and have a broad selection of opportunities both during and after the school day.
4. If by educational outcomes you mean International Baccalaureate, maybe it costs too much if we need to close schools to have it. What does International Baccalaureate cost?
Participating in the International Baccalaureate (IB) community as authorized IB World Schools costs an annual fee of between $8,520 (for the Primary Years Program) and $11,650 (for the Diploma Program) per school.* When ACSU became ACSD, professional development funds were pooled into one fund. That one fund was not increased, but rather redirected to support our common IB work. Those funds have more than covered IB fees each year through candidacy and now in authorization.
Additionally, ACSD pays IB exam fees ($119/subject) for students who elect to take external assessments associated with Diploma Program classes. Paying students’ exam fees aligns with our vision of “IB for all” by eliminating what would be a financial barrier for some students.
ACSD educators attend IB workshops, which we cover with local professional development funds (those pooled resources that we did not increase) and with various grants.
We do employ instructional leaders who have IB in their titles. Our IB Coordinator positions evolved out of curriculum leadership positions that had existed in MUHS and ACSD prior to IB and are similar to positions like Personalized Learning Coordinators, Proficiency-Based Learning Coordinators, Literacy Coordinators, and Instructional Coaches in other districts across Vermont.
*Fees current as of May 2021.
5. How is ACSD balancing its obligation to provide the best education to its students and help them grow into engaged citizens with the issue of cost and taxation? What’s more important?
This question gets to the heart of the motivation behind the Facilities Master Planning process. Both are very important, because the sustainable delivery of a quality education requires economic stability. The challenge is that our enrollment continues to drop and our per pupil spending continues to rise. Plus, low enrollment in many of our schools doesn’t allow for enough staffing to provide all students with equitable access to services and opportunities. We are at risk of needing to cut more educational services each year in order to present a fiscally responsible budget. Balancing the needs of our students (fulfilling our vision and mission) with our fiscal duty to all the citizens of the district is what drives the current work of the Board to look at the future of our facilities.
6. How does the Board define equity and how does this impact its work on the facilities master plan?
The ACSD Board defines equity with the following statement: ACSD will ensure the allocation of resources as necessary to establish a foundation of instructional experiences and learning opportunities so all students can become principled, knowledgeable, and caring citizens.
The Board is committed to providing students with all available resources to support their growth and success.
7. What is the extent of the necessary repairs and improvements that have been estimated through previous facilities analyses? How accurate are these assessments?
The initial numbers presented at the community forums were based on an analysis by a firm called School Dude a couple years prior, which surveyed each building and its infrastructure and assigned each a value as well as an estimate to bring those up to date.
Acknowledging that more detailed and current data was needed before any elementary school configurations could be discussed further, the Board enlisted TruexCullins to conduct an elementary school study to get a handle on building needs and opportunities to create 21st century places of learning. The report from their study can found on our website https://drive.google.com/file/d/19YbLe5rKXk0XJETUgDGVdMRBxUWYYHMQ/view.
8. Why doesn't the board value multi-age classrooms?
The Board absolutely values the various benefits of multi-age classrooms. The Board also wants educators and school leaders to be able to choose multi-age classrooms based on educational and social benefits rather than be determined by student numbers.
“This feels like too much, too fast” -- Questions About the Details and Town Impacts
1. Why are the decisions in the master plan district decisions and not town decisions?
When the seven towns of the ACSD voted overwhelmingly for unification in 2016, governance of the schools shifted from the local school boards to the new ACSD Unified Board. In 2016, voters approved a charter creating the new district and the structure of the ACSD Unified Board. In accordance with ACSD Policy A1: Governance Commitment, “[t]he Board assumes responsibility for ensuring the education and welfare of the children in its District schools,” and works toward its vision “that all students will reach their full academic potential and be prepared for success as engaged citizens.” In addition, each Board member, “regardless of where the member resides, shall consistently represent all seven towns and has a responsibility to make sure that resources focus on fulfilling the Vision.”
2. How will the ACSD Board determine which schools will close, if any?
The Board will use the information gathered throughout the facilities master plan process, including public input, to weigh these decisions. This information will include a range of factors, such as enrollment, transportation, parent travel patterns, building condition, building and classroom capacity, and much more. Should the Board move to close a school, the ACSD charter requires that 10 of 13 board members vote in favor, and that at least one board meeting occur in that community before the vote.
3. What will the impact of transportation be on the Board’s analysis of options?
We have heard and agree with feedback from our community regarding the importance of keeping bus times down. This is another reason why a 4-school model is preferred over the 3-school model; it will require moving fewer students and busing them a shorter distance.
4. Is it possible to expand preschool programs in all elementary schools to attract more families to ACSD?
Under Vermont’s Universal PreK program (Act 166), all preschool-aged children living within ACSD boundaries have access through the district to 10 hours/week of preschool programming. Most of those students attend private preschool partner programs. We do offer school-based preschool at Mary Hogan and Bridport Central School.
There is not currently sufficient demand to expand or sustain preschool programming across all seven elementary schools. We do aim to address the inequitable distribution of school-based preschool programs in our facilities master planning process. To support that work, and with the help of COVID Recovery ESSER funds, we have hired a half-time Preschool and Early Childhood Transitions Coordinator whose job description includes co-leading a visioning process to help define the future of preschool programming within the district.
5. What’s the overall timeline for the master plan and the decisions within it?
The ACSD Board paused the Facilities Master Planning process in January 2021, in light of the uncertainty around the pandemic, questions arising around Ripton’s secession, and the strain it was placing on ACSD in addition to other work the District was working to accomplish -- including final IB authorizations, transitioning 6th-graders to MUMS, and filling key leadership positions.
The Facilities Committee returned to the work in September 2021, and is currently examining the final elements in the FMP process, including identification of facility investment priorities, solidifying a vision for sustainability, and outlining some guiding principles for bonding. Once that work is complete, the Committee will issue a final Facilities Master Plan report, anticipated in early 2022. However, given current uncertainty around the State’s new education funding formula and how updated pupil weighting factors will impact the ACSD’s budget, the Committee does not have enough clarity around the District’s financial forecast to support any specific recommendations regarding the exact configuration of elementary schools at this time. As a result, the final FMP report will not be as prescriptive as some may have anticipated.
6. How much is ACSD spending on the Elementary School Study?
ACSD has paid Truex Cullins based on an hourly rate of $120-$195 per hour depending on the service, as well as the cost of any materials related to printing, binding, postage, etc. Total costs will be dependent on the length of the study and any changes necessary to provide time for collection of data and community engagement. As of March 30, 2021, the district has spent approximately $101,275 on consultant fees.
7. Moving the 6th graders to the middle school is part of the FMP, right? What’s the latest on the MUMS 6th grade transition?
Yes, in 2019 the board made its first decision relating to the FMP in agreeing to transition 6th graders to the middle school. This decision was first because it impacts education and enrollments at the elementary schools. MUMS has a dedicated webpage for the 6th grade transition www.acsdvt.org/transition.
8. I heard Ripton voted to leave ACSD. Where does that leave us now? What happens next?
Voters from the Town of Ripton voted to withdraw from the ACSD on January 12, 2021. Their withdrawal request was ratified by the other six member towns of ACSD on March 2, 2021 -- which enabled Ripton to elevate its petition to the State Board of Education.
The State Board reviewed Ripton’s petition and formally approved Ripton’s request to withdraw from ACSD on May 19, 2021. This means that the State Board of Education has found that Ripton has adequate provisions to support the PreK-12 education of its students in a school that meets the State’s rules and requirements for education programming. In Ripton’s case, the town will continue operation of the existing elementary school while budgeting sufficient funds for tuitioning Ripton secondary students to a middle school or high school of their choice.
The State Board-approved operational start date for the new Ripton School District will be July 1, 2023, in time for the FY43 academic year. In the meantime, Ripton remains a member town of ACSD, and is included in ACSD’s FY23 budget for the upcoming academic year.
9. So, if Ripton becomes its own school district, what supervisory union will they belong to?
On January 19, 2022, the State Board of Education designated the new Ripton School District as its own supervisory district. This means that after its operational start date of July 1, 2023, the Ripton School District will be responsible for providing transportation, special education, and other centralized services for its PreK-12 students.
10. What does Ripton’s withdrawal mean for the Facilities Master Planning process?
The financial challenges and equity concerns driving the Facilities Master Planning process remain significant regardless of Ripton’s membership in the ACSD, and will require our full attention in the near future. The Facilities Committee resumed its work on the planning process in September 2021, and is expected to release a report of its findings in early 2022.
“So what happens next?” -- Questions About Moving Forward
1. How will the master plan be used?
The Facilities Master Plan will be used as a guide to the ACSD Board to address our facility and educational goals, setting timelines for decisions on issues like bonding for building improvements, investigating changes in school borders, improving the efficiency of our buildings and deciding on a choice policy.
2.How can I become better informed and when do votes happen?
The best way to stay informed about the Facilities Master Planning process is to attend, watch recordings, or read meeting minutes of ACSD Board and Facilities Committee meetings. Meeting dates, agendas, and zoom links can be found here.
The ACSD Board will provide frequent updates on its work through district newsletters and on the acsdvt.org web site, including updating our FAQs and timeline. Also, look for updates in the Addison Independent newspaper, both in news articles and material provided by the District, as well as outreach via social media such as Front Porch Forum.
3. Even if we close schools, will we still need to go out for a bond?
This is still to be determined. To begin, we will invest in low cost high impact projects at the remaining elementary schools to prepare them for more students and address some deferred maintenance. The Board informally agreed against any elementary school configurations which would require a bond at the outset to accommodate the current student body. The FMP will outline timing and purpose of a bond which would most likely be some time after consolidation but within 5 years and would likely be to address major deferred maintenance at the remaining elementary schools and at the middle and high schools.
4. How will there be any taxpayer savings if we are taking out a large bond?
Regardless of how the district moves forward with its configuration, a bond will likely be needed to address deferred maintenance and more significant building needs in the district. Our work today ensures any bond referendum reflects a funding strategy that supports our educational mission and is financially sustainable.
5. What happens if our enrollment increases after closing schools?
While current projections locally, statewide, and regionally do not predict a significant increase in our school-age population, the ACSD Board is aware of and considerate of this possibility. Although the current elementary school population can fit into 3 schools, one reason the Board is considering a 4 school model is to enable the district to handle class surges or an overall increase in students.
6. Should a school be closed, what happens to the building? What restrictions are in place for its future possible uses?
According to the District's Articles of Agreement, once a school building is no longer used for educational purposes, it is offered back to the town at no cost. Its future use is up to the town. The district is happy to work with towns to help re-envision use of space if invited to do so.