ACSU schools join forces to explore merger possibilities

MIDDLEBURY — Five of the Addison Central Supervisory Union’s (ACSU) seven elementary schools have agreed to participate on an ad hoc committee to explore the feasibility of merging their educational resources and governance in the future.
The new panel is the next step in what has been an ongoing study of whether education services in the ACSU could be offered more efficiently with fewer governing boards and fewer elementary schools. Enrollment at six of the ACSU’s seven elementary schools has dipped to fewer than 100 students, and the declining enrollment trend is expected to continue not only locally, but throughout the state.
“I can’t anticipate much opposition to going forward,” ACSU board member Rick Scott of Bridport said of the study. Scott chaired an eight-member Merger Exploration Committee that recommended the ACSU take the next step under state statutes. That next step calls for formation of an 11-member “study committee,” with representation based on the proportion of equalized pupils of all school districts intending to participate in the study.
The ACSU board was scheduled to discuss the study committee recommendation on Wednesday evening, after the Addison Independent went to press.
Scott confirmed on Tuesday that school officials in Bridport, Cornwall, Weybridge, Shoreham and Middlebury have voted to participate on the proposed study committee. School officials in Ripton and Salisbury as of Wednesday had yet to vote on their participation, though Scott anticipated those towns would also want seats at the table.
Officials stressed establishing the study committee does not guarantee the ACSU will ultimately pursue school governance or school consolidations. What it does is preserve the ACSU’s options under state law to declare by October of 2012 if the supervisory union wants to take any consolidation steps, according to Scott. In the meantime, the public will be invited into what could become a very emotionally charged debate regarding the future operation of local schools, which that have become more costly to operate but nonetheless remain valued epicenters of education and community activity.
The neighboring Addison Northwest Supervisory Union (ANwSU) this past spring held a series of community votes, and ultimately defeated, a proposal to consolidate its elementary school boards into one panel.
As was the case in the ANwSU, Middlebury-area district voters will have the final say on any recommendations the study committee might propose. Those recommendations would also need to be vetted beforehand by the Vermont Department of Education, noted ACSU Superintendent Lee Sease.
Plans call for the study committee, at least at the outset, to assist with planning discussions in each of the seven towns. The study panel is eligible for reimbursement for up to $20,000 in state funds for expenses it incurs gathering and interpreting information.
The ACSU is already off to a nice head start in the information gathering department. The supervisory union last fall commissioned former Barre Superintendent Ray Proulx to study resources, enrollment trends and possible collaborations among schools within the ACSU’s seven elementary schools, middle school and high school. Proulx in March unveiled his 101-page report, which offers a cornucopia of facts, figures and at least four school merger options that ACSU leaders can consider as they confront declining enrollment and increasing costs within the union.
A sampling of facts and suggestions included in the Proulx report include:
•  Elementary school enrollment in the ACSU-member towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Salisbury, Shoreham, Ripton, Middlebury and Weybridge has gone from a high of 1,402 during the 1990s to around 830 now. That number has decreased by 170 in the last seven years, Proulx noted.
•  Mary Hogan Elementary could accommodate an additional 134 students; Bridport could handle another 43; while Salisbury Community School could take in another 80.
•      Consolidation scenarios worthy of consideration, according to Proulx, include joining Mary Hogan, Salisbury and Ripton into a unified K-6 school; uniting the Bridport and Weybridge schools, with Bridport as the host; joining the Salisbury and Ripton schools (in Salisbury); or building a new school to accommodate a union elementary district that would include Shoreham, Bridport, Weybridge and Cornwall.
Scott said he hopes people will give ample feedback when the study committee is up and running.
“I think it is such a complex issue, and I am sure there will be questions,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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