ANwSU unification earns big win; Vilaseca praises plan as model

VERGENNES — In a vote watched closely around Vermont, residents of all five Addison Northwest Supervisory Union communities on Tuesday backed strongly the plan to have one 12-member board govern the four-school union.
The final tally was 908-539, or about 63-37 percent, with wide margins in each town.  
As of June 2011, the existing Vergennes Union High and Elementary school boards, Ferrisburgh and Addison Central school boards, and ANwSU board will dissolve and the union will assume ownership of all four schools.
Until then, those existing five boards will run the district while the new board, which was elected at town meetings earlier this week, will come up to speed on a new system that will feature one operating budget for all four schools.
ANwSU officials said that all five communities will share per-pupil costs and a similar tax rate, at least prior to Common Level of Appraisal adjustments.
Vermont Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca, who closely followed the local issue, said he was pleased with the result. Vilaseca and other state officials have campaigned for consolidated school operations as one tool to combat spiraling costs.
Vilaseca visited Vergennes to back the one-board vote and also remarked in Middlebury recently that ANwSU consolidation could pave the way for more supervisory unions and towns to integrate their school operations. Vilaseca praised the outcome in a Wednesday email to the Independent.
“It was the right thing to do. I commend the superintendent and boards in that area for their thorough review of the issues and for leading this important effort,” he said. “I hope they can now be a model for the rest of the state.”
ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien said on Wednesday he was busy fielding calls from thrilled local school board members and receiving congratulations from around the state. Those on the other end of the phone line included representatives of the Vermont school boards and superintendents associations and the state branch of the National Education Association.
O’Brien said he hopes other communities and unions around Vermont seize the chance to take control of their own fate, rather than wait for state officials to mandate consolidations and school closings.
“What’s happened now in Addison Northwest lends some greater possibilities for consolidation throughout the state that won’t be top-down,” O’Brien said. “It might give some folks the confidence to consider some possibilities and what’s important to them.”
All five communities had to vote yes in order for the measure to pass. Town-by-town, the vote ran:
• In Addison, 197-138.
• In Ferrisburgh, 343-194.
• In Panton, 66-37.
• In Vergennes, 232-142.
• In Waltham, 70-28.
Although all four ANwSU budgets passed, O’Brien noted that in each town voters favored the one-board initiative by a greater margin than school spending — the VUHS budget passed in percentage terms, 57-43, for example.
“People were willing to say OK (to the budgets), but now make a change, and that was the unified union vote,” he said.
The new 12-member ANwSU board will have four members each from Ferrisburgh and Vergennes, two from Addison, and one each from Panton and Waltham. That ratio conforms to that of the existing VUHS board.
Board members elected this week were Tim Bicknell, Kurt Haigis, Laurie Gutowski and Adela Langrock from Ferrisburgh; Paulette Bogan from Panton; Cheryl Brinkman, Tara Brooks, Neil Kamman and Christopher Cousineau from Vergennes; Kristin Bristow from Waltham; and Don Jochum from Addison. No one ran for the second seat in Addison.
In 2005, ANwSU residents defeated a one-board plan twice. The first time around, it won a plurality overall, 811-805, but only the towns of Panton and Waltham supported the proposal. In a revote, voters in all five towns rejected the plan.
This time, O’Brien said recession and the looming possibility of state action to force school consolidation may have given the proposal — which is expected to be more cost-effective — more traction with the voters,
“(It was) the general economic climate, along with a lot of talk on consolidation at the state level,” O’Brien said.
Locally, O’Brien said he believes board members and administrators had more “clarity” in understanding and transmitting the benefits of a fully unified union.
“I think it was a concerted effort on the part of the boards to communicate directly to their constituents,” he said. “They maintained that consistently from last fall right through to yesterday. And I think we got the message out.”
Andy Kirkaldy is at [email protected].

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