ANwSU unity vote arrives

VERGENNES — Residents of the five Addison Northwest Supervisory Union towns on Tuesday will decide whether their schools should be run by one 12-member board instead of the current five boards.
If the one-board measure fails, the Vergennes Union High School board, the Vergennes Union Elementary School Board, the Addison and Ferrisburgh Central school boards, and the ANwSU board composed of representatives from those four boards will continue business as usual.
If the measure passes — and voters in each of the five towns must vote yes for that to occur — those five boards will run ANwSU operations until June 2011, when the one-board system would take effect. In the future, ANwSU residents would cast votes on just one budget that would fund operations at all four ANwSU schools
ANwSU would also assume ownership of the union’s schools. The new board would have a dozen members: four each from Vergennes and Ferrisburgh, two from Addison, and one each from Panton and Waltham.
That proportion is roughly equal to the current VUHS board, which handles the 7th-through-12th grade education for students from all ANwSU towns, about half of the roughly 1,200 in the union.
The new district would also assume the debt loads from each union school as well as the assets. The VUES and Addison Central School (ACS) budgets include payments from earlier projects, and a $1.5 million project was just completed at Ferrisburgh Central School (FCS).
State education officials, who are considering mandating consolidation plans as a way to contain spiraling education costs, are watching the local decision carefully.
Vermont now has 51 supervisory unions and 290 governing school districts to serve a declining statewide student population of about 92,000.
Vermont education commissioner Armando Vilaseca last week reminded the Addison Central Supervisory Union board that the Education Transformation Policy Commission — a panel charged last year with recommending options for improving and streamlining Vermont’s school system — suggested the number of supervisory unions could be cut to as few as 13.
Vilaseca and other state officials want to see if local school unions can choose their own paths before the state imposes mandates; in Middlebury, Vilaseca said ANwSU could be a trailblazer. 
“I think it’s a great model for the state,” Vilaseca said. “If it works, it is the first group to do it and would provide an opportunity for others.”
According to an ANwSU mailer sent to district residents, tax rates — at least before Common Level of Appraisal adjustments — would be the same in each town.
The theoretical tax rate in all five towns this year would be $1.35, a figure that would mean a short-term 12-cent saving in Addison and a two-cent saving in Ferrisburgh, but increases ranging from 4 to 4.8 cents in the other three towns.
School officials say that the system would check the sometimes dramatic swings in tax rates that towns have seen, and also share special education costs more broadly. Even a move of one or two families with special needs children into a small town can now have a major impact on an elementary school budget. A one-board system would mean the cost would be borne by a wider community.
In the long run, ANwSU officials expect to save money by more easily sharing costs. The mailer notes $40,000 a year will be saved in board audits, for example, while money spent in preparing for more meetings could be saved, transportation could be more efficient, and joint purchasing will be simplified by being fully centralized.
Some who wonder whether unification will offer those benefits have questioned why those efficiencies have not already been fully realized, however.
Some have also suggested that towns with larger debt loads, such as Ferrisburgh, should have to pay a premium to join a fully unified union. School officials have replied that other schools, including VUES, will soon need more work and that building costs will even out in the long term.
Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley also said he sees potential in the one-board plan, but is concerned that in order to garner support for a project in one town that officials could tie it to a project in another town, a political approach that could push building spending upward. 
Other issues include:
• ANwSU officials say that schools, especially FCS and ACS, will continue to be community centers, and that parent-teacher organizations will certainly still be allowed to be active.
• Officials said they have no plans to eliminate successful programs, such as the well-liked FCS food service, but will instead try to take what works and duplicate it in other schools.
Despite reassurances on those two issues, some still say they are concerned about the potential loss of local control of their schools.
• Teachers would become employees of the union as a whole, with seniority determined based on their hiring date within all of ANwSU. According to the mailing, there are no plans to move teachers “randomly from one school to the next,” but in a unified union, “schools could share personnel in order to preserve programming and retain quality teachers.”
• “There is no plan to close any schools. In fact, this is our plan to keep them open,” according to the ANwSU mailer. Officials said they are “concerned that if the state mandates consolidation that our smaller schools may not survive.”
• Candidates are running for the one ANwSU board in each town, a moot point if the measure fails. The only contested race for the board is in Vergennes, where three candidates are vying for a two-year term: former VUES board member Sidney Bosworth, current VUES board member Tara Brooks, and Christopher Cousineau, who was appointed to a vacancy on the VUHS board.
Voters twice rejected such an ANwSU unified union in 2005, the second time by a wide margin. The first vote, on Town Meeting Day, was close. Overall, it passed, 811-805, with solid support in Waltham, 67-39, and Panton, 74-49.
But the plan lost by small margins in Addison, 162-150; Ferrisburgh, 323-308; and Vergennes, 232-212.

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