ANWSU towns say yes to unification

VERGENNES — Addison Northwest Supervisory Union residents on Tuesday backed a plan for one 12-member board to own and operate Addison Central, Ferrisburgh Central, Vergennes Union Elementary and Vergennes Union High schools.
The overall vote was 764-466, or roughly 62-38 percent, and in four of the five towns at least 60 percent of voters favored the measure.
Those towns were Ferrisburgh (where the vote ran 270-161), Panton (62-15), Vergennes (191-124) and Waltham (64-16).
The exception was Addison, where a similar March 2010 vote in favor of unification was petitioned and eventually overturned in May. The Addison tally on Tuesday was 177-150 in favor, or 54-46 percent.
ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien was pleased with the unification vote result, which remains the first of its kind in the state.
“I am very pleased. I was overwhelmed that a vote like that could occur in Vermont,” O’Brien said. “And the fact that it could occur a second time is reinforcement that we’re on the right track.”
Still, O’Brien said he was realistic about the possibility that history could repeat itself.
“In matters like this … there’s always a likelihood for a reconsideration,” he said. “I certainly won’t rule that out by any means. Even if it were 99-1 I wouldn’t rule it out. It’s part of the process. We’ll deal with that if and when the time comes.”
Addison resident Carol Kauffman, one of the most vocal critics of unification, did not respond to an email seeking comment about a possible petition before the deadline for this article.
She and some other residents of Addison have expressed concerns, among other things, that unification could mean eventual closure of Addison Central School (ACS); that the towns should retain ownership of the school buildings; and that the six-year discussion of unification did not include enough other options for Addison residents to consider.
O’Brien and other school officials said they believe unification will help ACS stay open by removing a state-imposed penalty for high per-pupil spending and by allowing some Panton residents who live close to ACS to attend Addison’s school.
“This (plan) was built on the premise that small schools like Addison could survive,” O’Brien said.
What ANwSU residents supported on Tuesday were Articles of Agreement that were also approved by the Vermont Department of Education.
Among the key items in articles are:
•A Unified Union (UU) to have proportionate representation from the towns — four members each from Ferrisburgh and Vergennes, two from Addison, and one each from Panton and Waltham.
•The five existing school boards — ACS, Ferrisburgh Central (FCS), VUHS, VUES, and ANwSU boards — to operate the union until July 2012, when the UU board is to take over.
•The UU board to have purchased by July 2012 the four schools from the towns for $1 each, then return them to the towns for $1 if they are no longer used to house students.
•ANwSU to assume all debt loads from the schools, and future maintenance costs to be shared among ANwSU towns.
•Town tax rates to be the same, except for adjustments for towns’ common levels of appraisal (CLAs), according to state calculations.
•Teachers to be under UU employ and have district-wide seniority. ANwSU officials have said the UU board would have more flexibility in moving personnel if enrollment numbers change.
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.
ANwSU officials also have said there should be some cost savings. They have not promised dramatic results, but point to a projected $40,000 savings in board audits, and noted the recent elimination of the Vergennes, Panton and Waltham ID boards saved $25,000. They also believe, for example, that bus routes can more efficiently operate if town lines are not a consideration.
After the two 2010 votes, the Vermont legislature passed Act 153 to encourage school consolidation.
Act 153 bans newly merged districts from closing a school for at least four years; provides such districts a one-time payment of up to $150,000; and will allow small schools in consolidated districts to continue to receive extra financial support even if they merge — a provision that would help Addison.
Act 153 also offers four years of tax breaks for consolidated district homeowners. Those tax breaks mean 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.
That provision will not necessarily translate into lower rates in all the ANwSU towns, however. ANwSU officials expect lower rates in Addison and Ferrisburgh for the next few years. But after a dip in the first year in Vergennes, Panton and Waltham, officials expect a slight increase in those three towns. After five years, rates in all the towns will be the same before CLA adjustments in each community.
Tuesday’s vote was the fifth time ANwSU residents have gone to the polls to decide consolidation. In March 2010, ANwSU residents backed the plan by a 908-539 margin. Big majorities in all five communities supported it.
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 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.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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