ANwSU unification hinges on votes in two communities
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Vergennes residents consider finances, educational equity
VERGENNES — Few foes of proposed one-board Addison Northwest Supervisory Union governance spoke out at a Tuesday forum held at Vergennes Union Elementary School in advance of the May 11 revote on unification.
But school board officials acknowledged fears about a potential increase in the city’s tax rate and the assumption of debt from Ferrisburgh that prompted petitioners in Vergennes to ask for a new vote.
“I know there are a couple particular concerns in Vergennes, and we’ll try to address them,” said VUES board member Cheryl Brinkman.
Tuesday’s vote — polling hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the fire station — revisits March 2 balloting in which Vergennes residents favored one-board governance, 232-142. The overall ANwSU count backing unification ran 908-539.
A “Yes” vote backs the change to one 12-member board to own and operate the four ANwSU schools. The board would have four representatives each from Vergennes and Ferrisburgh, two from Addison and one each from Panton and Waltham.
A “No” vote opposes the change. Addison will also revote, and both towns must approve unification if it is to take effect next summer as scheduled.
Overturning the March 2 decision will require more than a simple majority. According to state statute, “No” votes must total more than two-third of the original “Yes” votes. In Vergennes, that means 155 “No” votes would be required.
Vergennes petitioner Michael Ferland repeated on Tuesday that he fears the city tax rate will rise — according to ANwSU estimates, the Vergennes residential rate next year could be $1.3552, up from about $1.30 this year.
In a Monday phone interview, Ferland talked about his point of view.
“Philosophically, I agree (unification) is the way to go. I have been very happy with my children’s education,” Ferland said. “My only concern is the financial aspect of it … It is, in the short term, going to raise the per-pupil costs in Vergennes … It’s too hard to tell in the long term, and I’m not sure there are adequate savings there.”
Ferland said he also received “different responses” from residents about why they supported the measure.
“I thought it would be worth having a continued discussion, giving people a chance to have buyers’ remorse,” he said.
Ultimately, Ferland concluded, “The only thing I can tell is the projected per-pupil costs in the year of unification.”
School officials said the assumption that taxes will increase in Vergennes is not necessarily correct.
They said the $1.3552 estimate did not take into account potential savings from unification, that state officials are insisting on lower budgets in the coming year, and that legislation likely to pass in Montpelier will offer ANwSU incentives for unification that will include either an artificial lowering of per-pupil rates (the House version) or direct Homestead property rate cuts (the Senate version).
Rep. Diane Lanpher (D-Vergennes), unification backer, said the House bill would probably pass. And Brinkman offered a rosier city tax picture.
“Our taxes could decline considerably in the first two years,” Brinkman said.
Officials project an immediate union-wide savings of $53,000 in audits, transportation and insurance.
City resident Margaret Lowe had another take on the tax question. Addison is facing paying a growing tax penalty for high per-pupil costs that is projected to increase without unification, and its taxes would drop substantially under unification. Lowe said she does not see possibly paying a little more as a burden.
“If they need it over there, why shouldn’t we?” Lowe said.
Another person at the forum raised what is also a concern of many in Vergennes, the wisdom of “assuming Addison’s and Ferrisburgh’s debt load.” She also said she heard “the scuttlebutt out there” is that Addison Central School needs a lot of work.
Don Jochum, a VUHS director from Addison and a new ANwSU board member, said recent projects have left ACS in good shape. Opponents of Addison’s participation in unification have also noted that the town will have paid off its school debt within three years.
“Our building is in good shape,” said Jochum.
Ferrisburgh Central School has just seen $1.5 million upgrade, however. Brinkman spoke to that issue.
“It seems like Ferrisburgh is coming to us with a lot of debt, but look at the great school we’re going to get,” Brinkman said.
Brinkman also said that VUES does have existing debt and will add more to replace an aging boiler and an aging portion of the school’s roof. School officials have also said that debt loads will even out as buildings need repairs and upgrades.
VUES science teacher Kitty Muzzy said she was concerned that educational equality for the three elementary schools would mean that VUES might lose in the transition.
“Does this mean in order to make all elementary schools equal … that Vergennes students will not have the same benefits they all have now?” Muzzy said
Brinkman said instead, for example, the projected savings in Addison might instead mean that ACS programs could be added.
“It’s exactly the opposite,” Brinkman said. “If we can save some money … we could use the money and bring them up to our level … Nobody is talking about taking anything away.”
Muzzy remained skeptical.
“I would hate to see my school go backward because of unification,” Muzzy said.
Brinkman responded that VUES would soon face some of the same pressures as Addison without a change in course. Enrollments are dropping in ANwSU, from 1,371 in 2000 to 1,125 in 2010, putting pressure on all its budgets.
“That’s one of the reasons we went to unification,” Brinkman said. “Our programs are in jeopardy, even here … Where Addison is now, we’ll be in five years.”
On another educational issue, Adela Langrock, an ANwSU one-board member from Ferrisburgh, said in Addison last week that teachers would not regularly be asked to work in more than one building, but might be asked to do so to preserve their positions or school programs.
“Teachers will not be moved randomly from one school to the next … Schools could share personnel,” she said.
Debate arose over whether state officials would ever mandate consolidation. Muzzy was skeptical the state would take such a drastic step.
“It’s a long road toward that kind of dictatorship,” she said.
But resident Cecile Gebo said she believed there was a precedent.
“Who here would have though we would lose so many probate courts?” Gebo said.
And Panton resident and new ANwSU board member Paulette Bogan, a former Mount Abraham principal, said she believed mandates were on the way.
“This is where we maintain control. If we don’t, it will be done to us in the future,” Bogan said.
Ultimately, Ferland said he could live with the outcome of Tuesday’s vote either way because of the equity that unification would provide for ANwSU students.
“You would have a level playing field, level resources and expectations,” he said. “That’s a strong selling point for unification. I only have one issue with this, and it comes down to money, and I’m willing to admit I could be wrong. However it comes out I’ll be fine with it.”
Addison debates debt, board representation
ADDISON — As Addison residents prepared to cast ballots in next Tuesday’s revote on whether to unify Addison Northwest Supervisory Union schools under one board, differing opinions arose at an April 28 forum at Addison Central School.
Those favoring unification voted in the majority on March 2, 197-138, part of an overall 908-539 yes vote in the five ANwSU towns.
But like in Vergennes, where the yes vote ran 232-142, Addison residents petitioned to revote the question. Both towns must vote in favor on Tuesday for the governance change to take effect as scheduled July 1, 2011.
Polling at the Addison town clerk’s office will run on Tuesday from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. A “Yes” vote on the ballot will favor unification, and a “No” vote will oppose it.
Overturning the March 2 decision will require more than a simple majority: “No” votes must exceed two-thirds of the number of the original “Yes” votes. In Addison, that means at least 132 “No” votes are needed to alter the outcome.
On April 28 two petitioners — Marianne Boivin and Carol Kauffman — were among the roughly 20 people at ACS to discuss the issues.
About a third were school officials backing the change, while several others joined petitioners in questioning the move, including Paul Boivin and Elizabeth Armstrong.
Paul Boivin pointed to a provision in the unification Articles of Agreement that would allow the proposed 12-member ANwSU board to close schools, despite officials’ insistence that they have no plans to close ACS.
“What is spoken and written are two different things … I have to believe what is written,” said Boivin, who in a later interview complained the articles had never undergone a legal review on the town’s behalf.
Ferrisburgh resident Adela Langrock, a longtime Ferrisburgh Central School (FCS) board member who was elected to the new ANwSU board, addressed the closure issue.
Langrock said that unification would remove a tax penalty Addison is now paying — $68,000 in next year’s budget — because its per-pupil costs are high.
The removal of the penalty would help keep ACS open, she said, adding that those costs rose because the school’s enrollment has dropped in the past decade from about 140 to a projected 104 next year.
“This is not our plan to close schools. This is our plan to keep schools open,” she said.
Some residents sided with school officials.
“This union is really the only way to keep this school open,” said Lisa Sausville.
DEBT AND REPRESENATION
Boivin also said he was concerned that towns with greater debt loads — Ferrisburgh just completed a $1.5 million renovation to FCS — were not required to buy into the agreement.
“We’ve sold our school for a dollar, and we’re buying everyone else’s debt,” Boivin said.
School officials, including Don Jochum of Addison, noted that future ACS projects would be shared by other towns’ taxpayers. Jochum also said that debt was a fair trade-off.
“How could I expect Ferrisburgh to take on my cost per pupil if I won’t help pay their debt?” said Jochum.
The April 28 meeting lacked clarity on the debt issue. According to the Articles of the Agreement, towns will sell their schools to the unified union for “one dollar, subject to all encumbrances of record,” and may buy back them under the same terms if the union no longer needs the schools.
Boivin this week insisted language in the articles of agreement would require that Addison assume other towns’ debt if it bought back the school.
This week, ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien disagreed. O’Brien said, “I can’t think of a situation” in which a town would end up spending more money to buy back a school than it received for it.
Boivin also said the new board’s makeup would work against Addison: It calls for four members each from Vergennes and Ferrisburgh, two from Addison, and one each from Panton and Waltham. Boivin asked what would happen if VUES, FCS and ACS all had leaky roofs.
“It will be new buckets for Addison, and new roofs for Ferrisburgh and Vergennes,” he said. “You aren’t going to change human nature.”
Board members present responded that all had volunteered for years with the best interest of students at heart.
“This board is charged with representing all the children in all the towns,” Langrock said.
Kauffman said Addison should instead look to convert Addison into a state-backed private school, which she said would be both more cost-effective and productive.
“Public schools can privatize. They can become a state-approved, non-sectarian private school … (Test) scores could go up,” said Kauffman.
Armstrong also criticized the school’s test scores and student-to-teacher ratio, noting there are 11 full-time and one part-time teachers for its 100-plus students.
“You’re sitting on an opportunity of a lifetime here,” Armstrong said. “Don’t put in with these people.”
ACS board member and parent George Lawrence responded the outcome of privatization would be uncertain.
“That’s a very scary approach to me. The unified union is a really well thought-out plan. Closing the elementary school and starting fresh, I haven’t heard a well thought-out plan,” Lawrence said, adding, “You close the school, that’s going to be extremely disruptive. It’s a multi-year process.”
Resident Lisa Davis also said she believed the private school plan was unrealistic, and that unification would preserve what Addison has now.
“There’s no way we can do it in Addison,” Davis said. “If we don’t unify, the state will do it, and we’ll have to send our kids to Middlebury or Vergennes.”
ACS board member Rob Hunt addressed student performance.
“Sixteen years ago, 5 percent met the standards in math. That’s one student,” Hunt said. “We’re not at 100 percent, but Addison Central School graduates more students on the Vergennes Union High School honor roll (per capita) than any school in Addison Northwest.”
Whitford House owner Barbara Carson said she was a former teacher in a district that unified, and said she saw benefits.
“I’ll stake my inn on Grandey Road this will work,” Carson said. “Those scores will come up.”
TOO MUCH TO ANWSU?
Kauffman also questioned whether the central office was collecting too much money from Addison.
“The administration grows and takes the direct instruction from children,” Kauffman said.
ANwSU business manager Kathy Cannon said much of towns’ ANwSU assessments go directly to student services, some of which were formerly funded to a greater level by federal grants.
In a later email, Cannon said Addison’s assessment from the supervisory union next year will be about $195,000, including roughly $3,400 for the English Language Learners program, $16,100 for the Title I Literacy program, $14,100 for school-based clinicians, and $73,400 for the Early Essential Education preschool program.
The remaining $88,300 is split between the following line items: “Curriculum, Technology, Administration, Special Education Admin, Fiscal, and Building Operation.”
In an opening statement, Langrock said that:
• ANwSU enrollment has dropped from 1,371 in 2000 to 1,125 in 2010, making a streamlined operation critical, including by holding fewer board meetings, paying for fewer audits and running fewer buses, a collective projected savings of $53,000 a year. “We have to figure out a way to use our resources more efficiently to serve kids,” she said.
• All towns would have the same tax rate before common level of appraisal (CLA) adjustments. Addison’s tax rate is $1.47. Using the total of all approved ANwSU budgets for next year, school officials came up with a figure of $1.3552 for a unified union rate, meaning a projected savings for Addison.
Officials said the actual tax rate could be lower. “This is merely a sum total, no savings, no efficiencies, no reductions in staffing,” Langrock said.
• That teachers would not be “moved randomly from one school to the next,” but that “schools could share personnel.”
• Schools would retain their “sense of community,” including by retaining parent organizations and the ability to hold dedicated fund-raisers.
• The new board would immediately discuss school choice within ANwSU, and that some parents of students on the Panton town line had an interest in having children attend ACS.
The Addison Central School board will host another informational meeting on the one-board issue at ACS at 7 p.m. on May 6.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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