Vergennes voters reverse field, go against unification

VERGENNES — Once again, one of the five Addison Northwest Supervisory Union communities has defeated the proposal to unify district governance under one 12-member board.
On Tuesday, Vergennes residents reversed their Town Meeting Day approval of what would have been a groundbreaking school consolidation measure in Vermont, rejecting unification, 261-162.
Meanwhile, Addison — the town that had in a 2010 revote defeated unification — on Tuesday reaffirmed by a 242-125 margin its March support for the plan in which one board would own and operate the four ANwSU schools.
Per ANwSU bylaws, all five of its towns must approve governance changes. Thus, one town defeated the measure for a second straight year in a petitioned revote after unification had won landslide approval in all five towns on Town Meeting Day.
The vote total in both communities was high for a single-issue election not held on a regular voting day. In Vergennes, 27 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
In Addison 37 percent of voters were heard on an issue that had sparked debate on whether the town should surrender ownership of Addison Central School to a unified union and whether unification would help ACS stay open or not.
“People turned out,” said Addison assistant town clerk Marilla Webb.
On Town Meeting Day 2011 the overall vote favoring unification 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).
But in Vergennes, the numbers changed, from 61 percent for unification in March to 62 percent against in May.
The exception to the 60-percent rule this past March was Addison, where the tally ran 177-150 in favor, or 54-46 percent. In Tuesday’s revote, the percentage tally increased to 66-34 percent in favor.
In 2010, the overall vote favoring the one-board plan in the five ANwSU towns was 908-539, but it was petitioned in Addison and Vergennes, and defeated in Addison in May.
School tax rates could have played a role in both towns on Tuesday. In Addison, rates were projected to drop under unification for several reasons:
•  Act 153 calls for tax breaks for homeowners in towns within consolidated districts.
•  ACS is now paying a tax penalty to the Department of Education because of rising per-pupil costs; those costs are increasing despite lower spending at ACS because of declining enrollment. Under unification, ACS students would have been counted as part of the larger district population, and the penalty would have vanished.
•  Act 153 preserves, at least for a time, grants to small schools like ACS.
At the same time, according to ANwSU figures that assume overall level budgeting and enrollment numbers throughout the four schools, the Vergennes school tax rate would drop by a penny in the first year, be a penny higher in the second year, and then rise by 2 cents a year for three years until rates in all five ANwSU towns were the same in five years. Those rates are prior to adjustments for Common Levels of Appraisal.
City Manager Mel Hawley pointed out at a Vergennes unification forum last week that those rates were equivalent to a $40 annual tax increase on a $200,000 home. Hawley contrasted that to an ANwSU mailer that he called misleading because it promised lower tax rates in Vergennes after unification.
ANwSU officials acknowledged the mailer was poorly worded and was intended to compare what the city’s rates would be after unification without the tax breaks offered by Act 153.
But Vergennes petitioners, notably Alderwoman Clara “Ziggy” Comeau, said they believed that tax increases were inevitable because higher per-pupil costs in Addison and Ferrisburgh had to be accounted for when those towns were brought into a fully unified union.
Comeau waged a spirited campaign against unification, going door-to-door to rally opposition. ANwSU officials said they also knew of a Facebook effort to promote a no vote based on the tax issue.
ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien said he was disappointed that so much emphasis was placed on the tax rate, given there were no expectations city school taxes would remain low without unification.
“The only known factor was that we had an incentive factor (from Act 153) to offset the tax rate,” O’Brien said. “Everything else is a guess, including what is going to happen at the municipal level.”
O’Brien also said ANwSU has made significant cuts in the past two budget cycles even before projected savings from unification are factored in.
“We’ve been modifying budgets by a heck of a lot,” he said.
ANwSU business manager Kathleen Cannon said she was not surprised to see Tuesday’s support in Addison, where the loss of small school grants and declining enrollment will continue to be problems — at this point, ANwSU is projecting kindergarten classes at ACU of just four students in each of the next two years.
“They’re really looking at a big penalty. I think that was their motivation,” Cannon said.
O’Brien said the Addison board, and the other schools’ directors, will have their work cut out for them.
“It’s not going to get easier for them,” he said. “It’s going to be some difficult budgeting.”
At least for the immediate future, O’Brien said consolidation will probably not be the answer for ANwSU boards looking to cut costs.
“I think it’s going to put it to rest for a period of time in our district,” he said.
At the same time, O’Brien said the same economic issues will persist in ANwSU and elsewhere, the district towns have twice voted by more than 3-2 margins to consolidate, and all five towns have supported it by at least 60 percent at one time or another.
Demand for unification could crop up elsewhere, and again in ANwSU, he said.
“I don’t think it puts it to rest permanently statewide. I think there are a number of districts considering the same thing for the same reasons,” O’Brien said. “I don’t think it will go way. I think it will hibernate for a while, if you will.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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