Forums to kick of ANWSU unity effort

VERGENNES — Addison Northwest Supervisory Union officials have scheduled three public forums as the district begins to consider uniting under one school board with proportional representation from its five towns, much as Vergennes Union High School is now run.
ANwSU officials believe that a one-board union can better serve students and be deliver education in a more cost-effective manner.
The first forum will be held at the Addison Central School (ACS) on Nov. 10 from 7 to 9 p.m., with others to follow at Ferrisburgh Central School (FCS) on Nov. 19 and VUHS on Dec. 2. ANwSU officials may set a unification vote on Town Meeting Day.
Those who attend will be asked to consider what they value about their schools, what “the benefits and challenges to unification” might be, and what their “vision for the future of school programs” looks like.
Officials will listen carefully, said ANwSU board chairwoman Kristin Bristow of Waltham.
“The central purpose is to hear from the taxpayers and the parents … what do they like about what’s going on in the schools? Where do they see it going from here?” Bristow said. “And, obviously, what are your concerns if we try to unify again?”
The first effort to unify ANwSU failed in 2005. Voters backed it, 811-805, overall, but the measure did not win the needed majority in each town to pass. A second vote went down to a one-sided defeat.
Superintendent Tom O’Brien said the combination of a sinking economy, declining enrollments, which lead to lower state support, and rising costs make the time right to look at unification again.
He said the move would save money — for example by operating one board with one budget and one audit instead of five boards, budgets and audits — and make education more efficient as ANwSU enrollment has dropped from a high of 1,400 to 1,193 today.
“Business as usual isn’t going to happen. It can’t happen. We’ve got demands all around us to make something happen with the cost of education. And the cost of education is being driven by enrollments declining and barriers like we’re discussing. And those barriers are going to fall,” O’Brien said.
Those barriers — such as town lines determining which school children attend or which bus picks them up, or finances limiting programs that single elementary schools can offer — can be toppled within a unified district, O’Brien said, and students will benefit.
“What Addison can and cannot offer, what Ferrisburgh can and cannot offer, what Vergennes can and cannot offer, that whole scenario would change,” O’Brien said. “It wouldn’t be a matter of what that district could afford to have.”
Concerns that many residents had in 2005 were that ACS or FCS could close, that cost savings could not be quantified, that the district already worked well, that smaller towns’ could be under-represented, and that financial winners and losers would be created among the towns because the condition and debt load of elementary schools vary.
O’Brien and Bristow said they hoped the forums would help address those and other issues and begin to get out more accurate information.
Proposed is a 12-member board, four each from Ferrisburgh and Vergennes, two from Addison, and one each from Panton and Waltham. All real estate — and associated debt — now owned by schools would go to the new union except Vergennes recreation land, which the Vergennes ID board is negotiating to transfer to the city. The board would present one budget for all four schools for voter approval.
The new board would operate just as the VUHS board does, said Bristow, also a longtime member of that board.
“I’m looking out for all the children,” Bristow said. “Same thing with a unified union. I’m not only looking out for the town of Waltham. I’m looking out for all the children in Addison Northwest.”
Some have expressed concern about assuming debt. FCS has about $1.7 million of debt, Vergennes Union Elementary School has about $335,000, and ACS has about $125,000, according to ANwSU business manager Kathy Cannon.
A recent FCS project added about 3 cents to that town’s tax rate, an amount that could translate to 1 cent spread over ANwSU, Cannon said, adding that all five towns would share future work to VUES or ACS.
Officials noted there are financial advantages that could more than offset that amount. For example, Cannon said Addison is paying 12 cents on its tax rate for being over a state per-pupil spending threshold. That penalty, caused by low enrollment, would be erased by unification.
And O’Brien said towns that experience spikes in spending because of special education spending would no longer face that issue.
“When you have individual schools responsible for the costs of unanticipated, usually special needs, situations, that causes extremes in their budget … When it is a cost for the unified union as opposed to one district or the other, that cost is spread among the five towns,” he said.
The issue of local control also looms over the discussion, but Bristow said she expects each ANwSU school to retain its essence while benefiting from effective sharing of programs that work well.
“Each one has its own identity and personality, and certainly the intent is not to take that away. What we want is the equality so that all kids going into seventh grade are on the same level playing field,” she said.
O’Brien said once schools meet state and federal curriculum standards and No Child Left Behind guidelines and fulfill their contractual obligations, local boards are left working around the edges — unless they take steps like that ANwSU is considering.
“If we have any local control, it might be scheduling basketball games. It’s not the essentials of what we do. We don’t have control over much of our budget,” he said.
Officials also don’t foresee discussions of building closures to crop up for at least a decade, if then. If such a move is discussed after an unexpected and dramatic drop in enrollment, O’Brien said residents would make the call.
“I’m not going to make that decision. Kris is not going to make that decision,” he said. “People will recognize long before a decision is necessary that this is just not going to work … If the school district was going to close a building, my recommendation would be, ‘Not without talking to the residents in that town.’”

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