ACSU will study school board consolidation

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) board last week took another small exploratory step into the arena of school governance consolidation, electing to create an ad hoc committee that will help coordinate debate on the controversial issue.
The new committee will feature representation from each of the seven ACSU-member towns and will be appointed by ACSU board Chairwoman Carol Ford of Ripton. The committee is formally charged with “determin(ing) the process by which the ACSU will determine whether to formally explore a merger within the supervisory union or with one or more outside school districts.”
The May 26 decision comes two months after the board reviewed a study by retired Barre Superintendent Raymond Proulx that indicated the ACSU could potentially run its schools more efficiently and cost-effectively by consolidating the governance of its nine schools and by merging some of its smaller elementary districts.
It’s a decision that also comes just a few weeks after voters in Addison and Vergennes overturned their earlier decision to consolidate governance of Addison Northwest Supervisory Union schools into a single board.
Meanwhile, the ACSU towns of Ripton, Cornwall and Weybridge have either begun, or are scheduling, some long-range planning meetings to get citizens’ feedback on how their respective elementary schools should plan for a future with steadily declining enrollment.
Elementary school directors in all seven of the ACSU-member towns — which also include Shoreham, Middlebury, Bridport and Salisbury — have had at least informally discussed the Proulx school governance study. But those directors are now wondering what — if anything — should come next.
“It feels like we are all doing one-act plays without a director,” said Weybridge School Director Michelle Hernandez.
The soon-to-be-formed committee will soon provide some direction, using a script — bill H.66 — passed by the Legislature during the recently concluded 2010 session.
Bill H.66 offers incentives to supervisory unions that voluntarily merge their school boards are schools. Under terms of that legislation, participating supervisory unions:
• Would see their superintendent’s duties expand by July 1, 2012. Superintendents’ responsibilities would include hiring non-licensed staff and dismissing all staff, nominating individual candidates for licensed positions for board approval, and reporting all financial operations of the supervisory union and/or its member districts.
• Would see their board duties expand, to include, among other things, establishing supervisory union-wide curriculum and ensuring its implementation; providing special education and remedial services; providing management of construction projects; and organizing student transportation. The ACSU already provides the lead in providing some of the aforementioned services, noted Superintendent Lee Sease.
School districts that choose to voluntarily merge into a “Regional Education District”, or RED, as the legislation said, must formally discuss such plans before Dec. 1 of this year. Districts that decide to move in such a direction must vote to “engage in a formal merger planning analysis process” by October of 2012, according to the legislation.
Each RED must include at least four existing school districts, and/or an average daily membership of at least 1,250 students. The RED would not be able to close a school in the first four years of operation without the consent of the voters of the town in which that school is located.
The RED merger votes must occur by July 1, 2017.
Merger incentives in H.66 include:
• An annual reduction in participating towns’ homestead education property tax rate over four years. That reduction would be 8 cents in year one; 6 cents in year two; four cents in year three; and two cents in year four.
• Participating districts in each RED would not see their homestead education property tax rate or income sensitivity percentage (under Act 68) increase, or decrease, by more than 5 percent annually. This provision is intended to smooth the transition from a participating district’s tax rate to the new RED’s tax rate over time.
• The RED would have the option of operating with two-year budgets during the first four years of operation, and two- or three-year budgets thereafter (subject to approval by local voters).
• If a RED elects to sell a school building, the RED would not be required to repay the state aid it received to erect that structure.
It should be noted there is one mandatory provision of H.66. It requires that all school districts and supervisory unions adopt class-size policies by next January. Those policies must specify minimum and optimal class sizes.
Class size will be a key concern during the next few years in ACSU elementary schools, six of which have enrollments of fewer than 100 students. Ripton and Weybridge residents, in particular, are seeing their student numbers shrink.
Mergers have not yet been formally discussed in the ACSU communities, but Wednesday’s board action keeps that option alive.
“It’s a pre-exploratory committee,” ACSU board member Ruth Hardy of Middlebury said of Wednesday’s action.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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