ANwSU unification vote on tap

VERGENNES — Residents of the five Addison Northwest Supervisory Union communities will on Tuesday once again decide if ANwSU should unify under one-board governance.
They did so in March 2010 by a 908-539 margin. Big majorities in all five communities backed a 12-member board to own and operate the four ANwSU schools.
But Addison and Vergennes residents petitioned the result, and in May Addison reversed its 197-138 vote in favor with a 191-148 tally against the Unified Union (UU) plan.
Because all towns must back the proposal for it to take effect, the UU measure thus was defeated for the third time — it lost twice in 2005, the first time by a close vote and the second time by a wider margin.
In 2010, the Legislature also passed Act 153, which required all Vermont school districts to consider consolidation and also offered districts that qualify incentives, including:
•  A one-time payment of up to $150,000.
•  Four years of tax breaks. If ANwSU consolidates, homeowners would see a drop of up to 8 cents in the statewide school tax rate for the 2012-2013 school year, 6 cents the year after, 4 cents the next year, and 2 cents in the final year.
•  A provision for small schools — like Addison Central School (ACS) — to continue to receive extra financial support even if they merge.
Addison residents have also been paying a tax penalty for high per-pupil costs. That penalty would vanish in a UU because ACS students would be part of the larger ANwSU population.
After Act 153 was passed, the ANwSU board formed a consolidation committee that held a series of forums. After feedback and a survey that showed more than two-to-one support for one-board governance, the committee recommended that ANwSU again test UU waters.
The ANwSU board then adopted amended Articles of Agreement that were approved by the Vermont Department of Education for Tuesday’s vote.
Many of the essentials are the same, with some tweaks based on public feedback:
•  The UU board would have proportionate representation from the towns: four members each from Ferrisburgh and Vergennes, two from Addison, and one each from Panton and Waltham. That ratio is the same as on the Vergennes Union High School board.
The five existing school boards — ACS, Ferrisburgh Central (FCS), VUHS, Vergennes Union Elementary (VUES), and ANwSU boards — would operate until July 2012, when the UU board would take over.
•  The UU board would purchase the four schools from the towns for $1 each, and would return them to the towns for $1 if they are no longer used to house students.
That provision about housing students is new language in the Articles that officials said is intended to protect Addison and Ferrisburgh — they said ANwSU will not have the option of using either ACS or FCS as office space.
Another change in the Articles is a clause saying no ANwSU school may close except after a union-wide vote of all residents. Act 153 also bans newly merged districts from closing a school for at least four years.
•  ANwSU would assume all debt loads from the schools, and their future maintenance costs would be shared among ANwSU towns.
•  Town tax rates would be the same, except for adjustments for towns’ common levels of appraisal (CLAs), based on towns’ property assessments relative to fair market value.
Under the plan, teachers would be under UU employ and would have union-wide seniority. The UU board would have more flexibility in moving personnel if enrollment numbers changed.
That flexibility could also help, officials said, in meeting what they say is another major unification goal, creating equity for VUES, FCS and ACS students as they enter VUHS.
For example, ACS has extra math and literacy positions, but lacks the music and art programs of FCS and VUES. Officials said sharing positions is possible in the future as they try to meet that goal.
In Addison, opponents have objected that the town would have just two representatives on the proposed 12-member board, that the board would have the power to shut ACS down, and that because ACS is carrying a low debt load that Addison would be assuming other towns’ debt. Some have also proposed considering converting ACS into a state-approved private town school as an alternative.
Proponents said that board members would consider all children’s needs and would not discriminate against any town, as now the VUHS board does not; that financial pressures that ACS would face without unification would threaten its closure; that tax savings, both because of the vanished per-pupil penalty and the Act 153 savings, would offset any assumption of debt; and that the private school route would be a long, disruptive process with an uncertain outcome and finances.
Others, notably both in Addison and Ferrisburgh, have questioned the sale of the schools to the union, saying they preferred control of community assets remain with the towns.
ANwSU officials said they debated lease arrangements, but could not see any real benefits. They said it would be difficult for all ANwSU residents to help pay for needed renovations to any one building without ownership, and that they didn’t want any one town to be stuck with a big bill.
Officials also said the same principle would apply to special education; a UU would mean sometimes high costs would be borne on a union-wide basis.
Some also question whether money can be saved through consolidation and cite studies elsewhere.
ANwSU officials have not promised dramatic results, but point to a projected $40,000 savings in board audits, and said the recent elimination of the Vergennes, Panton and Waltham ID boards saved $25,000. They also believe, for example, bus routes can more efficiently operate if town lines are not a consideration.
School officials also believe adjusted bus routes and limited school choice could help ACS because some Panton children who now attend VUES live closer to Addison.
Some, again notably in Addison, have criticized the ANwSU boards for not providing enough information for residents to make an informed decision on unification. There have been calls for a “pro and con” forum with state officials.
In a recent email, ACS board member Michele Kelly outlined officials’ efforts to get information out. She listed school board meetings in each ANwSU town, a meeting in Addison with Department of Education Chief Financial Officer Bill Talbott, a meeting in Addison with a private school headmaster to discuss that option, two UU forums this winter in Addison and one each in other towns, mailings warning the meeting, flyers handed out by the ACS board at meetings, and information posted on the ANwSU and ACS websites.
Candidates are running for the UU board in each town. The only contested race for the board is in Addison, where longtime ACS board member Rob Hunt and unification critic Carol Kauffman are squaring off.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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