VERGENNES — Vergennes residents — and quite possibly those in Addison — will be going to the polls for a sixth time to decide the fate of proposed one-board governance for the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union. If the Unified Union proposal survives either one or two revotes, it would be the first significant consolidation move in Vermont.
After receiving a successful petition filed by city council member Clara “Ziggy” Comeau, Vergennes aldermen set May 17 as a vote date for city-wide reconsideration of a plan for one 12-member board to own and operate the four ANwSU schools.
Residents in all five ANwSU towns — Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham — must back any unification for it to take effect.
If any town reverses course from its Town Meeting Day unification support, the plan would be defeated. Officials in Ferrisburgh, Panton and Waltham said they believed no petition efforts had been mounted in those towns.
On March 1, Vergennes residents supported unification, 191-124, or almost 61-39 percent.
The overall vote was 764-466, or roughly 62-38 percent. In four of the five towns at least 60 percent of voters favored the measure.
The exception was Addison, where a similar March 2010 vote in favor of unification was petitioned and eventually overturned in May. The Addison tally on Town Meeting Day 2011 was 177-150 in favor, or 54-46 percent.
ANwSU officials said they have heard a petition has started in Addison, but have not been able to confirm its existence. Addison Town Clerk Jane Grace said she had no knowledge of a petition, and prominent unification opponent Carol Kauffman has not responded to two emails seeking comment.
After a 2010 petition, in May Addison reversed its 197-138 Town Meeting Day vote in favor of unification. The second vote went 191-148 against the one-board plan, and derailed the proposal.
Vergennes residents also in 2010 petitioned their 232-142 vote backing unification. A majority said no to the governance switch, 139-127, on May 11. But state law requires that in a revote the number of votes to change an outcome must equal at least two-thirds of the original opposite tally. That threshold in Vergennes stood at 155, and the city vote alone would not have dealt unification a setback.
After this March’s 191 yes votes in Vergennes, both a majority no vote and at least 128 no votes will be needed to defeat unification on May 17.
Assuming a petition in Addison, 119 no votes and a majority would be needed to overturn the town’s March vote in favor of ANwSU unification.
Comeau said after Tuesday’s city council meeting she decided to file the petition because she believed residents were confused by an Addison Independentarticle published the Thursday before the vote.
A passage in that 40-inch article described Act 153, which the Vermont Legislature passed after Town Meeting Day last year to encourage school consolidation. In part, Act 153 offers homeowners in newly consolidated school districts four years of tax breaks.
The article in question read: “If ANwSU consolidates, homeowners would see a drop of up to 8 cents in the statewide school tax rate for the 2012-2013 school year, 6 cents the year after, 4 cents the next year, and 2 cents in the final year.”
The Independent ran a clarification in the Monday paper prior to the vote, and online before then. We pointed out that according to ANwSU estimates Act 153 provision will not necessarily translate into lower school tax rates in all the ANwSU towns.
Assuming level budgets, ANwSU officials expect lower rates in Addison and Ferrisburgh for the next few years after unification. But after a dip in the first year in Vergennes, Panton and Waltham, officials expect a slight increase in those three towns. After five years, rates in all the towns will be the same before common level of appraisal (CLA) adjustments in each community.
In 2010, when the vote in Vergennes ran 62-38 percent in favor of consolidation, ANwSU officials had projected an immediate 5-cent tax increase for city homeowners after unification took effect.
In Addison, some residents have expressed concerns, among other things, that unification could mean eventual closure of Addison Central School (ACS), that the towns should retain ownership of schools, and that the six-year discussion of unification did not include enough other options for Addison residents to consider.
School officials said they believe unification will help ACS stay open by removing a state-imposed penalty for high per-pupil spending and by allowing some Panton residents who live close to ACS to attend Addison’s school.
Tax rates are projected to drop by about 7 cents in Addison under the first year of unification, before a CLA adjustment is made.
ANwSU first cast ballots on unification in 2005, when the proposal was narrowly defeated on Town Meeting Day, and then more soundly in a second vote.
Among the key unification provisions are:
• A Unified Union (UU) board to have proportionate representation from the towns.
• The five existing school boards to operate the union until July 2012, when the UU board is to take over.
• The UU board to have purchased by July 2012 the four schools from the towns for $1 each, and then return them to the towns for $1 if they are no longer used to house students.
• ANwSU to assume all debt loads from the schools, and future maintenance costs to be shared among ANwSU towns.
• Town tax rates to eventually be the same, except for adjustments for towns’ CLAs.
• Teachers to be under UU employ and have district-wide seniority. ANwSU officials have said the UU board would have more flexibility in moving personnel if enrollment numbers change.
That flexibility could also help, officials said, in meeting what they say is another major unification goal — creating equity for elementary students as they enter VUHS.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.