Addison considers school district unification
ADDISON — A lively Feb. 8 Addison Central School (ACS) forum on one-board governance of Addison Northwest Supervisory Union aired both unification’s potential benefits for Addison and the objections some residents there have about the plan.
The fate of the proposed 12-member board that would own and operate the four ANwSU schools may ride on voting in Addison on March 1. All five ANwSU towns must vote yes if the proposal is to succeed.
Last spring, Addison residents — many of whom are reluctant to surrender ACS ownership to a unified union (UU) and fear the move could mean eventual closure of the school — petitioned the town’s 198-138 March 2010 vote in favor of unification.
Last May town residents voted, 191-148, against the plan. The measure had passed overwhelmingly in Ferrisburgh, Waltham and Panton and was not petitioned. In Vergennes, a majority voted against unification in a petitioned revote, but failed to earn enough votes to overturn the original favorable verdict.
At last Tuesday’s forum, which drew eight area residents and as many officials, opponents brought up familiar issues. Opponents also said they want residents to have more options than unification on the menu, including full school choice and an independent town academy.
Resident Elizabeth Armstrong handed out a flyer backing a committee that would “provide correct data to all the taxpayers of all options.” She favors a town academy that could be structured to give residents control over its operations.
“I know you’ve put a lot of work into this, but you’re not opening a lot of the doors you should open,” Armstrong told the representatives of the ANwSU board’s unification committee.
But one longtime ACS board member, Rob Hunt, said the committee had researched options and were focused on explaining unification, which is a modified version of a plan that was first defeated in 2005.
“Is there a possibility that the reason we’re having this meeting is it’s about unification, and that’s why you’re not presenting other information?” Hunt said.
One reason the meeting — and other forums in recent months on the issue — was held is 2010’s Act 153, which requires Vermont school districts to consider consolidation.
It also offers incentives to districts that unify, including four years of tax breaks for homeowners on the statewide tax rate (at a decreasing rate from 8 cents the first year to 2 cents in the fourth), a one-time payment of up to $150,000, and a promise that schools like ACS receiving small-school grants.
The law also forbids consolidating districts from closing schools for four years. According to the ANwSU Articles of Agreement, no school can be closed without a union-wide vote.
Some in Addison worry that unification will result in ACS closure.
“The only town that is going to be hurt through contraction is the town that is going to have a school closed,” said resident and ACS and UU board candidate Carol Kauffman.
ANwSU officials have said they have no plans to close ACS. ANwSU UU committee member Jeffry Glassberg said the worst-case scenario was probably a reversal of the current trend of rising taxes despite drastic program cuts.
“If the alternative is we’re going to have a slower rate of increase and an expanded opportunity, gee, as an outcome, as a voter, I think that’s better,” Glassberg said.
A major sticking point for some in Addison is a provision that all schools will be sold to the UU board for $1, and then returned for $1 if no longer used to house students.
Addison and Ferrisburgh have their own schools, while Panton, Waltham and Vergennes pupils share Vergennes Union Elementary School.
All ANwSU 7th-graders attend Vergennes Union High School, which is already jointly owned by the five towns and run by a board with representation based on each town’s population. The proposed UU board would have four members each from Vergennes and Ferrisburgh, two from Addison and one each from Panton and Waltham.
Addison farmer Paul Boivin criticized the sale provision. He noted Addison’s lower debt load and better condition than Ferrisburgh Central School and VUES.
“I don’t want anything to do with the Vergennes elementary school or the Ferrisburgh elementary school … I know the bills that are coming,” Boivin said.
Boivin said the towns should keep the buildings and lease them to ANwSU.
“Educators and buildings don’t mix,” Boivin said. “We should be keeping the buildings in the communities they’re in … You people should keep to managing education.”
Glassberg said members had rejected the leasing option as unnecessarily complicated. He said if towns were responsible for maintenance, school spending could spike high. Then the UU would end up adjusting rents, effectively subsidizing the projects.
“If we do that, then in essence, the cost is going to be borne by all the taxpayers in the district. So why go through the extra step of going through that lease?” Glassberg said. “We started by looking at what is best for the children of the district first and foremost. And secondly, as board members, we felt an obligation to look at measure that would bring control to educational costs.”
ANwSU committee member and Addison resident Donald Jochum said “I don’t see it as a forfeiture of assets. The Addison Central School is owned by the Addison School District. The Addison School District becomes part of the Addison Northwest unified union district, and the school district is still going to own the building. So I guess six of one, half a dozen of the other.”
Ferrisburgh resident Bob McNary remained wary. He said FCS comes with 26 valuable acres.
“There are a thousand ways it could be structured,” McNary said. “Why are the individual towns being required to give up all … property to create a new business model?”
Resident Barbara Supeno said even if Addison had to subsidize projects elsewhere, the Act 153 and unification savings would more than offset those costs. Because of declining enrollment, ACS per-pupil costs have exceeded a state threshold, and taxpayers have paid a penalty despite major budget cuts. Unification would eliminate that penalty because ACS students would be counted as part of the larger ANwSU population.
“This is such a good deal or Addison, four years, 10 years, 20 years down the road,” Supeno said.
ACS board member Michele Kelly said elimination of the penalty would also help improve the school.
“If we don’t unify … we will have to be reducing the program quality to keep the budget manageable. And that’s unfair, I think, to the Addison students,” she said.
According to ANwSU office projections, Addison’s residential tax rate would drop by about seven cents in each of the first two years of a UU, assuming spending and common levels of assessments were unchanged. Changes are capped at 5 percent, and could not fall the full 8 cents. ANwSU business manager Kathleen Cannon the next day said the tax break applied to homes and all attached acreage.
But Kauffman said consolidation would not save money. She said she had researched the issue — she emailed a link to a Newsweek story about a study in Indiana — and failed to find studies that showed savings.
“I haven’t seen any proof consolidation saves money,” Kauffman said.
But Glassberg said in 2009, Waltham, Panton and Vergennes residents voted to eliminate their ID boards and fold their functions into the VUES board. He said that change, which took effect in 2010, saved $25,000.
“We have a local example of how consolidation does save money,” Glassberg said.
Vergennes resident Mike Ferland asked how the change would work to treat all ANwSU elementary school students fairly — without ending up costing more.
Committee member Kristin Bristow said ANwSU elementary schools now have different levels of programming, particularly in the arts.
“It would be nice if all schools could have that,” Bristow said.
ACS Principal Wayne Howe said his school has a full-time math teacher that has helped 93 percent of pupils achieve the state math standard in the most recent testing, but lacks music. He said the issue was “equity in opportunities.”
But Ferland said that bringing programs to different schools could be costly.
“Isn’t it logical to assume then if the main goal of the district is equitable opportunities, don’t we have to spend money?” Ferland said.
But Bristow said under a UU, all teachers would work for the district, and sharing among schools might be easier.
Kauffman suggested a forum with education department attorney Mark Oettinger and Rep. Willem Jewett (D-Ripton), the Vermont House’s Majority Whip. “Both are closely involved with Act 153, both are lawyers and each represent a strong case for the pros and cons of unified unions,” she said.
Kauffman would also like to see a clause allowing Addison to exit the UU and become a “choice town” if ACS is closed.
There were a couple of testy exchanges.
Kauffman said the town of North Bennington has been studying this issue independently of its supervisory union, a remark that drew a quick response from Hunt, who is running against her for a seat on the proposed UU board.
“In North Bennington they’ve had a committee working on this for two years,” Kauffman said.
“Form one,” Hunt said. “You’ve had eight fricking years. Form one. It’s not the responsibility of the unified union.”
Resident Stephen Payne described himself as a latecomer to the debate. He said he attended Kauffman’s meeting in January that attempted to create momentum for an independent Addison school, and had talked to school officials. Eventually, he decided to back unification.
“I feel that this is not an ideal thing,” Payne said. “But … for a small state and a small town, we have to control the costs.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].