Unification debated at Vergennes forum

VERGENNES — At Tuesday’s Vergennes forum in advance of the May 17 revote on Addison Northwest Supervisory Union unification, opponents questioned what tax impact the switch to one-board governance would have on city residents.
Meanwhile, backers focused on unification’s potential benefits to ANwSU students, especially those from elementary schools coming into Vergennes Union High School, and to residents from long-range stability of tax rates.
About two dozen Vergennes residents and a handful from Addison came to the Vergennes Opera House for Tuesday’s informational meeting. They heard presentations from Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley, city petitioner Clara “Ziggy” Comeau, and ANwSU unification committee chairwoman Kristin Bristow, all of whom then answered citizen questions.
The petitioned revotes of Town Meeting Day unification approval are set for next Tuesday in each community. Voting in Vergennes will run from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the city’s Green Street fire station, and balloting in Addison will run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the town clerk’s office off Route 17.
A vote against unification in either town will defeat the initiative despite the solid margins it earned on Town Meeting Day.
There are no revotes in the other ANwSU towns of Waltham, Panton and Ferrisburgh.
Hawley did not take an official position, but questioned the wording of a card ANwSU sent out to residents that stated tax rates would be lower for four years and then stabilize.
“I’ve been curious about the statement,” Hawley said.
Hawley and the half-dozen ANwSU officials present agree that given a long list of assumptions — including that all ANwSU budgets remain the same, that the student counts do not change, and the common level of appraisal (CLA) adjustments are not applied — the city’s tax rate under unification will drop by a penny in the first year from its current level of $1.231.
In the second year, what Hawley called a “hypothetical rate” would be $1.241, and then it will rise by 2 cents a year until it stands at $1.301 in five years.
Given the same assumptions, Addison’ rates are projected to drop from $1.392 now to $1.3224 in unification’s first year, and then to $1.256 the second year.
Addison would then match the city’s rates at $1.261, $1.281 and $1.301 the following three years.
Hawley said those 2 cents per year in Vergennes translate to an increase of $40 a year on a home assessed at $200,000, and that to have no increase ANwSU would have to cut more than $800,000 in spending over five years.
The problem, Hawley and Comeau said, is that Addison and Ferrisburgh central schools have higher per-pupil costs than Vergennes Union Elementary School, and there is no way to bring them into a unified union without higher taxes — at least in the short term — for Vergennes, Panton and Waltham.
Bristow said the ANwSU card mailed to residents was intended to show the benefits of Act 153, which lowers rates for school districts that unify. The city’s rates would be much higher after unification before they level out in five years if not for Act 153, which was passed a year ago, she said.
Hawley said the mailer led residents to believe their taxes would actually go down, not be relatively lower after unification.
“Do you think it’s clear that people’s taxes are going up,” he asked Bristow.
“It could be more clear,” she responded.
But not all agreed taxes should be the only issue, and some said taxes could rise even faster without unification. Cheryl Brinkman, a VUES board and ANwSU unification committee member, said VUES is facing declining enrollment and a needy facility, and has been fortunate to control spending increases through timely teacher retirements.
“Our taxes will go up in Vergennes,” Brinkman said. “Our student population is going down, our costs are going up, and our building is aging. I would love to see what our tax rates would be without unification, because I think they would be much higher.”
Brinkman and others backed unification as a way to better equalize opportunities for ANwSU elementary students in all three schools.
“There are larger issues here than tax rates,” Brinkman said. “This in an opportunity to share the resources we have. This is the way to go.”
Bristow said the curriculum basics are about 85 percent similar in the three elementary schools, but “extras” like reading recovery, enhanced math instruction and music vary from school to school. It would be easier to share personnel and extend programs if even part-time teachers worked directly for the district, not for individual schools, she said.
“Our job … is to make sure our kids get the absolute best education we can give them,” Bristow said. “That means they have to have the same opportunities at each elementary school.”
Resident Susan Ferland said real cost savings could only come from consolidation on a grander scale, by merging supervisory unions, as Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca had stated as a goal in an April article. 
“Why aren’t we exploring a bigger merger that will save us more money?” she said.
Bristow noted the difficulty of merging even the five cooperative communities of ANwSU.
“It is not an easy process,” she said.
And she noted that unification would save some money, although the amount has proven difficult to quantify. For example she said, five audits are now needed, and only one will be performed after unification, and bus routes can be merged when town lines are now longer an issue.
Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, raised the question of how assets and liabilities were being transferred to the union. ANwSU will buy the three elementary schools for $1 each and assume towns’ debt related to each, including almost $1.5 million in Ferrisburgh.
“It seems to me a legitimate concern,” Clark said.
Vergennes Union High School teacher Jay Stetzel took the position that all schools would eventually need work, and that the shared burden would be lighter in the long run,
“Over time things will even out,” he said.
Resident Chris Robinson asked if there would be choice about which school to attend, for example if a child lived in Ferrisburgh within walking distance of VUES, or if a child attended VUES and his or her family moved to Addison and the child wanted to remain at VUES.
Bristow said “the short answer is yes,” but that the new 12-member board would have to establish a policy to create some stability so that all students “couldn’t attend one school one year, and another school another year.”
Small business owner and Aldermen Randy Ouellette said he was skeptical about the tax implications for businesses, which will not receive an Act 153 tax break.
“Any type of tax increase … is going to adversely affect my clients and myself,” he said. “The income I’m going to make is going to get smaller by people reaching into my pockets.”
By the end of the evening, questions lingered. Resident Lynn Donnelly, who said she has voted for unification in the past, voiced her doubts.
“I do believe they (Hawley’s) are good numbers. I do understand we have to do something to reduce taxes,” she said. “Now I don’t know what to do.”
Bristow said she had not issue with Hawley’s numbers, but did not necessarily believe the city’s taxpayers would be better off without the governance change, given financial pressures at VUES.
“There’s no guarantee your taxes aren’t going to go up even higher without unification,” she said.
Given the debate about taxes, unification supporters said the students should come first.
“I urge you to keep our students in mind when you are voting,” Stetzel said.
Unification votes set for Tuesday
VERGENNES/ADDISON — Residents of Vergennes and Addison will decide on Tuesday the fate of the proposal to unify the five Addison Northwest Supervisory Union under one-board governance.
Solid majorities in each community backed unification on Town Meeting Day, as they did so in March 2010, but as was the case in 2010 residents petitioned the outcome. In May 2010 Addison reversed its vote in favor and defeated unification.
In 201, the Vermont Legislature passed Act 153, which includes incentives for unification and mandates that local school districts discuss consolidation. ANwSU officials restarted discussions and eventually put a slightly amended version before voters in March.
The Articles of Agreement on which the city and town residents will vote on Tuesday include the following provisions.
•  The new unified union (UU) board would have four members each from Ferrisburgh and Vergennes, two from Addison, and one each from Panton and Waltham.
The five existing school boards — Addison Central School (ACS), Ferrisburgh Central (FCS), Vergennes Union High School (VUHS), Vergennes Union Elementary (VUES) and ANwSU — 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.
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 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 after five years, 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.
That flexibility could help, officials said, in meeting a 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.
Given a long list of assumptions — including that all ANwSU budgets remain the same, that the student counts do not change, and the CLA adjustments are not applied — ANwSU officials have projected five years of tax rates for the towns (see story, Page 1A).
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.
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. 
Proponents said that board members would consider all children’s needs and would not discriminate against any town; that financial pressures that ACS would face without unification would threaten its closure; and that tax savings would offset any assumption of debt.
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 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 high costs would be borne on a union-wide basis.
ANwSU officials have not promised dramatic savings, but point to a projected $40,000 savings in board audits, and said the recent elimination of the Vergennes, Panton and Waltham primary school 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.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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