EWSD sign

The Essex Westford School District West Campus offices.

On April 13, voters in the Village of Essex Junction, the town outside of the village in Essex, and Westford will have a chance to vote on three seats on the Essex Westford School District (EWSD) School Board – one seat being open for each of the representation districts.

Additionally, incumbent John Sonnick is running unopposed for another one-year term as moderator and as clerk while incumbent Susan McNamara-Hill is running unopposed for another one-year term as treasurer.

Village of Essex Junction school board seat

Essex Junction voters will cast votes for four offices, three of which are the unopposed races listed above. In the fourth vote, incumbent Diane Clemens and Robin Law will be in a contested fight for a seat on the school board that would come with a three-year term.

Clemens, a 37-year resident of Essex Junction, is a longtime board member and grandmother whose 5-year-old granddaughter will be entering the school system as a kindergartner this fall. Clemens has been actively involved in the school board since her daughters themselves went through the school system.

Clemens said the board has begun a multi-year “policy governance process” in which the administration and board will be held more accountable to each other and the community by various policies. This process of added accountability and handling the COVID-19 pandemic are two large tasks Clemens sees the board tackling in the coming year.

Of her pursuance of reelection, Clemens said, “I've lived here; my kids went to the system. I really enjoyed the system. I've been involved with the system. I created part of the system twice. I've stayed active in the community.”

Clemens stresses the importance of using media to chat and interact with various community members to remain in touch with their and parents’ expectations.

“I was on [the parent teacher organization], and we coached and worked with Girl Scouts, and a whole bunch of things. You got to be involved, I think, to the extent you can be, and my goal is to make sure kids get the best footing going forward,” Clemens said.

Law has lived in Essex Junction since 2007 and has two children in the district: a second grader at Summit Street School and a seventh grader at Albert D. Lawton School. Law is pursuing election after a narrow loss in 2020.

Law cites her 20 years of military service with the Vermont Air National Guard as a way she has gained valuable leadership skills and experience participating in group work. She participates in the community as a leader for her daughter’s Cub Scout Pack and her son’s Scouts BSA troop.

In terms of the largest issue this coming year, Law foresees COVID-19 posing the most challenges.

“COVID has caused a disruption to learning and socialization for our students. As school life returns to normal, educators will need to help students recover essential skills,” Law said.

Law is also concerned with amplifying the voice of the public and making it easier for members of the community to voice concerns.

Town outside the village school board seat

Town of Essex voters outside of the village will be voting on the same clerk and treasurer positions, as well as their own school board race between incumbent Liz Subin and Elizabeth Cady who are also competing for a three-year term.

Subin, a board member of six years, served as a member of the executive board as clerk during her last term.

“I have very much enjoyed being part of those executive meetings and the agenda planning that comes with it,” Subin said.

Subin’s professional career has brought her to the position of director at the Pennywise Foundation in Richmond, an organization that pursues sustainable solutions to global issues. The Pennywise Foundation has allowed Subin to work towards her passions of environmental and racial justice. Subin’s biggest priority for the upcoming year is pursuing equity across the district.

“Equity is at the center of all that we are doing right now, and I believe that’s where our attention should be,” Subin said. She plans to accomplish this partially by uplifting marginalized communities and giving equal attention to rigor across districts.

One of Subin’s biggest accomplishments thus far as a board member has been her integration and mentorship of student representatives on the board. As the member who originally pushed for adding student representatives, Subin feels this will have a lasting and important impact on the board.

“We can’t sit around a table with a bunch of adults who haven’t been in school for 20 years talking about what it’s like to be in school. Seems like a no brainer, but it’s something we need to tell ourselves,” Subin said.

Elizabeth Cady is an Essex resident with two children, the oldest having attended Essex Elementary from 2017-20. Cady currently works as an assistant teacher at a private school and made the decision to remove her children from the EWSD in the summer of 2020. She says that was because she felt the board did not have a focus on returning children to schools and was not willing to listen and respond to community input.

“I am running for a position on the Essex Westford School District Board not because I have political aspirations, but because I have witnessed firsthand that our current board's priorities are not what I hope for my children, or any children, to receive out of public education,” Cady wrote on Front Porch Forum when announcing her candidacy.

Cady also cites budgetary concerns with the board as a reason she is pursuing election. A surplus of $4.5 million is part of the $80 million 2022 fiscal year budget the board has put forth. She sees this surplus as worthy of further discussion, as she notes the number of students in the EWSD is decreasing.

“Full transparency is needed in order for our community to know how to set the EWSD budget appropriately, and our Board needs to disclose all of this information to us prior to setting it, so that we are actively involved and understand how our tax dollars are working in the district,” Cady wrote on Front Porch Forum.

District-wide seats

Sonnick has served as clerk and moderator for the school board since he was first appointed to the positions a few years ago. He is largely responsible for handling the annual school board election and the accompanying meeting that would have taken place in the absence of COVID.

“I've always been a civics geek, and I just love elections and that sort of thing,” Sonnick said of his involvement.

Sonnick expects turnout for the election to be reasonable. In a given general election, he usually assembles a team of about 20 to handle it. In the chaos of the 2020 general election, his team grew as large as 50. For this school board election, Sonnick expects to need about 12 staff members.

Sonnick believes that because each active voter will receive a ballot in the mail, turnout will increase significantly.

McNamara-Hill chose not to discuss the school board election.

BUDGET

The proposed school budget for the 2022 fiscal year is $81,732,048, a 1% decrease from last year.

The tax implications for this upcoming year are dependent upon whether or not a family pays taxes based on their property value or their income. About 70% of EWSD tax-paying members pay based on income. For those who pay based on property, the Common Levels of Appraisal (CLA) are decreasing in all three geographic locations: the village, the town outside of the village, and Westford. This means the state views these properties as more valuable than they are assessed for.

For those who pay their education taxes based on the value of their property, here are the projected homestead tax rates after the CLA adjustment is applied:

  • Essex: New rate of $1.6455, an increase of $.0276
  • Westford: New rate of $1.6317, an increase of $.0046

For those who pay based on income, the rate is projected to increase from 2.42% to 2.46% of household income.

The proposed fiscal year (FY) budget must include the full carry-over surplus from the prior completed year unless voters authorize establishing a reserve fund. In the FY21 budget, that surplus totaled $2.3 million while FY22’s has grown to $4.5 million. Brian Donahue, chief operating officer for EWSD, stated in the budget presentation that this 95% increase is “due in large part to COVID-19 and moving to fully remote in March 2020. The intention of the proposed budget is to use the full carry over to addressing the learning and instructional impacts of the pandemic.”

This increase in the carry-over surplus from the prior year will not create a cliff in coming years, Donahue notes, because significant investments included in the FY22 budget are one-time expenses or projects. Additionally, there are only a few large cost facility projects on the books for the FY22 budget including replacing two hot water tanks at Essex Middle School, two boilers and burners at Founders Memorial School, and the gym roof at Westford School.

Article IV addresses allowing the district to borrow money in anticipation of receiving funding from the State Education Fund. The article states that if the district borrows money for this purpose, it must pay back the loan no later than one year after receiving the funding.

Article VIII is asking for voters to authorize the continuation of the special reserve fund they voted to allow to be established last year so the leftover funds provide the district with flexibility given the unforeseen impacts of the pandemic.

WHAT NEXT?

An informational meeting will be held April 6 at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom to discuss the ballot. Voting in person will occur April 13 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Village residents vote at Essex High, town outside of the village residents vote at Essex Middle School and Westford residents vote at Westford School. All active voters should receive a ballot in the mail as well and can mail that back prior to election day. All Essex residents can also put their ballot in the secured drop box outside of the Town Offices at 81 Main Street.

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