ANwSU to look at unification in a new light

VERGENNES — With a new law in place offering more incentives for school districts to consolidate, Addison Northwest Supervisory Union officials have scheduled a series of public meetings this fall to explore the possibility of a Town Meeting Day 2011 unification vote.
Act 153, passed by the Vermont Legislature this past session, provides for lowered state education tax rates for property owners during the first four post-consolidation years, from an 8-cent drop in the first year to a 2-cent drop in the fourth; offers a district $20,000 to plan for consolidation; after consolidation gives a district $150,000 to help with the transition; and allows schools like Addison Central to continue to receive small-school support grants after consolidation.
ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien said the tax rate incentive would undoubtedly prove most appealing to residents of a district considering consolidation or — as has been the case in the past and possibly again in the future of ANwSU — unification.
“The biggest piece is the property tax decrease in the first four years.” O’Brien said. “That was a pretty big issue or concern in the discussions we had leading up to the vote.”
In all, O’Brien called the incentives “significantly greater” than those in place when ANwSU residents voted on unification earlier this year. Act 153 also prohibits closure of schools in consolidated districts for at least four years.
Voters in all five ANwSU towns — Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergenns and Waltham — this past Town Meeting Day overwhelmingly approved unification, but the result was petitioned in Addison and Vergennes and then overturned in Addison by a significant margin. Because all five towns must agree to a governance change, the unification measure thus failed.
Now, with new statewide incentives in place, ANwSU officials want to at least test the waters again. Four meetings have been scheduled to discuss the new legislation and, in O’Brien’s words, address “questions and concerns people may still have or new ones that may arise.”
The meetings, all scheduled to run from 6:30 to 8 p.m., will be held on:
• Tuesday, Sept. 14, in the Vergennes Union High School library.
• Tuesday, Oct. 12, at Ferrisburgh Central School.
• Tuesday, Oct. 26, at Addison Central School.
• Tuesday, Nov. 9, at Vergennes Union Elementary School.
The series of meetings will not be unique to ANwSU. Act 153 mandates that all school districts consider by 2012 whether school mergers or other forms of consolidation would be beneficial.
“School boards must have conversations around this issue,” O’Brien said. “They must at least give some time to this question.”
ANwSU’s response, given its history — in 2005 an earlier attempt to consolidate failed in a pair of votes — was to look again at unification, which passed by an almost two-to-one margin in March.
The ANwSU board has a subcommittee that shepherded the process in 2009 and earlier this year, and that committee will review the issue after the four upcoming meetings, O’Brien said.
On Nov. 19, that committee will make a recommendation to the full ANwSU board whether to proceed toward a unification vote next March.
“The board already directed the subcommittee to go back to the drawing board, so to speak, and … decide whether going forward is advisable or not,” O’Brien said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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