Addison Northeast explores school unity

BRISTOL — School boards in the five Addison Northeast Supervisory Union towns of Bristol, Lincoln, Starksboro, New Haven and Monkton last week met with consultant Ray Proulx to explore options for school consolidation.
Proulx, who last year produced a report on costs and benefits of consolidation in the Addison Central Supervisory Union, laid out several options. Superintendent Evelyn Howard said each board should continue to discuss unification options at their upcoming meetings.
For some who took part in the Nov. 16 discussion, change in the ANeSU schools is inevitable.
“I’m concerned that the state will make the changes if we don’t,” said Bonita Bedard, chair of the Starksboro school board. “Either we lead or we get dragged by the state.”
In June, the boards were asked to vote on whether to participate in a unification study, called a RED study. RED stands for Regional Education District, which is a type of unified school district featuring heavy standardization and equitable distribution of resources across schools. The state is encouraging RED studies under Act 153 by providing school boards up to $20,000 in reimbursement for consultant and legal fees.
Boards in every town but Bristol voted to form a study committee.
Minutes from the Bristol board’s June 13 meeting show vice-chair Chico Martin spearheaded opposition to the study. Those minutes state:
“(Martin) believes that Bristol’s demographics and political identity are significantly different from the other towns.  He is against centralization and believes authority should be kept at the local level … He is opposed to the study as a waste of time.”
Last Wednesday’s meeting was a follow-up organized by Superintendent Howard. The meeting featured Proulx, education consultant and previous superintendent for Essex and Barre, who spoke about a spectrum of unification options.
“Basically, if everyone had voted yes in their individual meetings, (the study) would have moved forward without having that meeting the other night,” explained Bedard, who is also vice-chair of the ANeSU executive committee.
At last Wednesday’s meeting, Proulx outlined three main types of consolidated districts: joint-contract, unified union and RED.
A joint-contract district, like the one Granville and Hancock once had, has two or more separate boards, which represent given districts. Proulx said those boards then create a joint contract board, which is comprised of members from both district boards, to govern school operations. The advantage of this arrangement, he explained, is that it’s very easy for districts to get in and out of these contracts. The state doesn’t play a large role, so there isn’t a set-in-stone commitment.
A unified union has one board, one budget and therefore one cost per pupil, explained Proulx. A unified union can have multiple campuses, but finances and governance are consolidated under one board.
A RED is a more structured version of the unified union, said Proulx. The state scrutinizes REDs, but provides more financial assistance. Among other characteristics, a RED requires more standardization and equitable distribution across schools.
“If one school had a foreign language and another school did not have a foreign language that would not be OK,” Proulx said. “You either have no foreign language or everybody has foreign language. If one building has state-of-the-art technology and another does not, that would not be OK under the RED.”
Because, she said, the RED is more rigid, Bedard wants to look at still other options, like the Walden Project, an education program run jointly by the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union and the Willowell Foundation.
“I’m interested in looking at specialty elementary and high schools, like magnet schools … a school that actually promotes kids’ interests, like the Walden Project. Those are the opportunities I’d like to see,” she said. “I’d like to look at things like we’ve never looked at them before.”
Bedard thought the meeting with Proulx was insightful and that a wide range of options should be explored.
“I think (Proulx’s message) is while you do gain a lot of information (from a RED study), the goal from a legislative perspective is to move towards a RED. I wish we could have a broader opportunity to study school governance and education, in general, to look at the best ways to do lots of things rather than just this RED angle, rather than just consolidating boards,” said Bedard. “I’d like to take the $20,000 they’re willing to give us for the RED and look at more than just REDs.”
According to Vaughn Altemus, education finance manager with the Vermont Department of Education, a RED study can help boards do just that. In the event a study finds a RED is not suitable for a group of districts, that’s OK, he said.
“(The boards) have a fair bit of discretion over what a RED study can explore,” said Altemus. “There are other kinds of options available that other districts would like to consider. It’s not as narrow as it might first appear … (The study) could say (the boards) don’t think a RED is appropriate and it certainly can raise other options for discussion among districts. Part of the study (is to help facilitate) communication across boards.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]

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