ACSU panel seeks input on school governance

MIDDLEBURY — An ad hoc committee studying the concept of merging school governance in the Addison Central Supervisory Union will soon begin a series of forums in the seven ACSU-member towns that could culminate in a referendum in March of 2013.
The ACSU Governance Study Committee was formed last fall to meet one of the deadlines prescribed by Act 153, a state law that provides incentives for school districts to voluntarily consider mergers. Act 153 allows individual school communities to consider merging into a Regional Educational District, also called a RED, governed by a common board. The state is offering up to $20,000 to RED study committees to defray consulting and legal services.
The state is also offering financial rewards to voter-approved REDs.
The ACSU study committee has been meeting monthly since last October, according to Rick Scott, who chairs the 11-member panel. The board includes representation from the seven ACSU-member towns of Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham, Weybridge, Cornwall and Bridport.
“We have decided to take a broader view, and consider all opportunities for improving governance in our supervisory union,” Scott said on Tuesday.
“The need to consider this has been apparent for a while, and the timing seems very right for us,” he added.
Addison Central officials have been intently studying governance issues since early last year. The ACSU last year commissioned former Barre Superintendent Ray Proulx to study resources, enrollment trends and possible collaborations among schools within the supervisory union’s seven elementary schools, middle school and high school. Proulx last spring unveiled his 101-page report, which offers a cornucopia of facts, figures and presents at least four school merger options for ACSU leaders to consider as they confront declining enrollment and increasing costs within the union.
Six of the ACSU’s seven elementary schools — all governed by separate boards — have fewer than 100 students. The combined elementary population in the ACSU has gone from a high of 1,402 during the 1990s, to around 830, according to the Proulx report.
The ACSU study committee describes its charge as:
•  Providing leadership to the seven communities and school districts as they explore options and make informed decisions about the future of our schools.
•  Ensuring that educational quality and access for the communities’ children, as well as fiscal responsibility and community values remain central to the discussion.
•  Engaging members of the public in a way that fosters informed decisions and community ownership of outcomes.
•  Developing a recommendation based on community input, as well as data and information collected by professional analysts, within the constraints of current law. That data will include — but may not be limited to — educational, fiscal, and demographic analyses.
•  Reporting to the Vermont education commissioner and ensuring a community vote within a reasonable time period.
ACSU residents can chart the study committee’s progress — and weigh in on the school governance issue — through the panel’s Website, at http://acsustudycommittee.org.
“We are now at the point of planning our public engagement,” Scott said. That engagement is set to start this summer with the town of Weybridge, which will serve as the committee’s “pilot project town,” according to Scott. Once the public has weighed in in Weybridge, the study committee will hold similar forums in the other six ACSU towns during the winter of 2011-2012.
“There will probably be multiple forums,” Scott said.
Helping the committee throughout the process will be Essex Junction-based consultant Susan McCormack.
At the end of the process, the study committee will issue a report that could recommend that the ACSU form an RED; do nothing at all; or take some other kind of steps to improve school governance.
If the recommendation is for forming an RED, such an action would have to be endorsed by voters in all seven ACSU towns.
Act 153 calls for supervisory unions to declare by October of 2012 if they plan on taking any consolidation steps.
Scott said the ACSU study committee is shooting for a Town Meeting Day 2013 vote for an RED-related vote, if that turns out to be the final recommendation.
“Our committee has not preconceived notions about what the outcome should be,” Scott said. “We intend to engage the citizens of the individual towns in the planning process.”
In the meantime, Scott and his colleagues will pay close attention to the neighboring Addison Northwest Supervisory Union (ANwSU), which continues to grapple with the notion of one-board governance in that five-town union. Voters in the five ANwSU towns have been considering a governance merger for several years now, and unanimously supported such a move last month. But citizens’ petition drives in Addison an Vergennes will trigger re-votes in those communities next month, which could undo the March results.
Governance consolidation has emerged as an emotional topic for some area residents who see such a move as a precursor to closing some of the smaller schools and sending students to neighboring communities.
“I don’t think we’re under any illusion that  this is not a divisive and hot-button issue,” Scott said. “Our hope is that by involving the citizens in the development of the report, we will come away with a recommendation that mirrors the communities’ desires as much as possible and that we will go into a vote — if there is one — with a significant amount of buy-in.”
The Study Committee meets monthly on the third Wednesday of each month. The meetings are open to the public. The agenda and location are posted at the Website, as are minutes of previous meetings.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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