Middlebury-area schools to consider governance under one board

MIDDLEBURY — A committee exploring ways to streamline operations within the Addison Central Supervisory Union is recommending that residents in the seven-town school district vote on a referendum that some believe could reduce bureaucracy and create more educational equality and opportunities for students.
Specifically, the ACSU Study Committee wants to hold a vote on whether to combine some, or all, ACSU schools into a Regional Education District, known as a RED.
Made possible under Vermont’s Act 153, an RED is a new type of union school district that can allow multiple community and secondary schools to operate under one board with a common budget with shared resources.
The committee spent almost two years convening public forums in the ACSU-member towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge asking residents their priorities for their respective schools and how they could continue to offer quality education in the face of declining enrollment and budget constraints. Those who showed up at the forums acknowledged the need for better communication and shared resources among schools. But there was no overwhelming support in any of the seven communities for any dramatic steps, such as closing and/or combining schools.
That “left the committee at a crossroads as to which direction do we take this,” said ACSU Study Committee Chairman Eben Punderson of Weybridge. “There’s no question a lot came out of the forum process, but what didn’t come out of the forum process was any real clear advocacy for real changes in the governance structure.”
While there wasn’t any great public outcry for change, committee members conceded that the direct question of changing the schools’ governance structure was not squarely asked, nor were the financial and logistical implications of such a move offered to forum participants. The ACSU schools are currently governed by nine separate boards with a combined total of 52 members. This has made for a lot of evening meetings for ACSU administrators — particularly the superintendent. Some feel the number of meetings is scaring off some potential successors to Superintendent Gail Conley; the ACSU is in its fourth search effort in two years.
So committee members felt uncomfortable about simply abandoning the governance debate and decided to pursue it to a conclusion: A vote, up or down, by ACSU voters once they have learned all the pertinent facts and consequences of establishing a Regional Education District. Punderson said the committee was swayed greatly to take this position by a letter written by its former chairman, Rick Scott of Bridport.
In his letter, Scott cited several reasons for allowing district residents to vote on the issue. They include:
•  Leadership. “As a consequence of our recent failure to secure a superintendent of schools for the ACSU, the importance of governance restructuring has become significantly more important,” Scott said. “The issue put forward by one of our most recent finalists was directly related to the number of boards the superintendent is accountable to … And it’s entirely plausible that our governance structure has caused other potential candidates to not even consider the ACSU.”
•  Educational equity. Scott said an RED would allow the ACSU to direct its combined resources at such offerings as a second-language program. Second-language instruction is not offered in all ACSU schools, mainly because of a lack of resources. Consequently, some ACSU students are not as prepared as others to take on a second language when it is offered to all students beginning in 8th grade.
•  Efficiency. “A single budget across the schools would equalize the costs of education across the district, providing cost equity to the taxpayers,” Scott said.
•  Autonomy. Scott noted state officials have been discussing legislation to reduce the total number of supervisory unions from the current 63 to 15. He said it might be in the ACSU’s best interest to pre-emptively create its own RED to make sure that it isn’t arbitrarily thrust into a larger supervisory union by the state.
•  Financial incentives. The state, under Act 153, is offering financial rewards to communities participating in REDs to minimize impacts to tax rates during the first four years of the transition. There are four incentives for the creation of REDs:
1.      An 8-6-4-2 cent-per-year reduction in residential property tax during the first four years for districts that create REDs.
2.      Up to $20,000 in consulting fees associated with planning.
3.      Up to $130,000 in additional “facilitation grants.”
4.      Forgiveness of the requirement to return state aid for school construction in the case of school closures.
“The original $20,000 budget remains intact and there is some money left,” Scott said of the RED process going forward.
If it is to pursue forming an RED, the district must follow some additional steps mandated in Act 153: Create a plan to form the new union, conduct a cost-benefit analysis, submit the plan to the Vermont Board of Education for its approval, and gain voter approval in all involved districts.
Scott would like to see that vote take place before the end of the year, ideally this fall.
Over the past decade, the Addison Northwest  Supervisory Union spent many months holding multiple votes on what was ultimately an ill-fated attempt to bring all its schools under one board. Residents in some towns voiced concerns about how the consolidation would affect their property taxes; others were concerned the move might be the first step in combining and/or closing some community schools.
Similar concerns are likely to be aired during the ACSU’s consideration of an RED.
Conley said he understands the arguments both for and against establishing an RED. He noted that while such a move would reduce bureaucracy and create new efficiencies, community members would have to sacrifice some of the local control they currently have over their community schools. For example, the single RED board (with representation from all participating communities) would have to make financial and curricular decisions for the perceived good of the whole district, as opposed to the micromanaging that local boards can now do at their respective schools. And an RED board, Conley said, could be thrust into decisions of whether special programs now offered at but a few member schools should either be offered district-wide or eliminated, because of the more global budget.
ACSU schools, Conley noted, already share some teachers and services across town lines. Those relationships include music and art teachers who work at multiple ACSU schools; shared second-language students in Weybridge and Ripton as well as Middlebury Union Middle School and High School; and shared custodians, nursing staff and paraprofessionals.
The next few months are shaping up to be very busy ones for the ACSU Study Committee as it navigates the provisions of Act 153 toward a vote on an RED.
“My position is to let the study committee continue its work,” ACSU board Chairman Mark Perrin said. “There is something to be said about following through on a process and bringing it to closure.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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