No ACSU consolidation for now

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central Supervisory Union will not go through a formal process to consolidate its schools or governance structure — at least for now.
After a 3.5-year process, the ACSU Governance Study Committee on Monday issued its final report on the notion of forming a “Regional Education District (RED)” encompassing two or more of the seven school districts within the supervisory union.
The committee’s study was done in cooperation with the Vermont Agency of Education and with help from school directors in the ACSU-member towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. Student population has been on the decline in ACSU schools, to the extent that officials wanted to look at the pros and cons of eliminating some of the nine governing school boards, or perhaps even closing some of the smallest schools and sending those students to other ACSU schools.
Vermont’s Act 153 provides financial incentives for school districts to form REDs. An initial step in that process calls for a study that will be delivered to the Agency of Education.
Chaired at first by Bridport’s Rick Scott and then by Weybridge’s Eben Punderson, the ACSU study committee spent many months  holding community forums, study circles and brainstorming sessions in all seven affected communities. That community outreach culminated in a an ACSU-wide summit held in June 2012. Participants in the process discussed such things as the role of schools within their communities, education quality, school funding, and how schools might collaborate to lower expenses and increase productivity.
“We don’t function well if we think of ourselves as eight separate districts,” Punderson said, alluding to the ACSU’s seven elementary schools and UD-3, which includes Middlebury Union middle and high schools.
Participants in the public outreach sessions suggested such things as sharing resources between schools, exploring potential collaborations with Middlebury College, enhancing programming and curriculum, creating more preschool opportunities, finding ways to boost enrollment, and identifying creative uses for school buildings.
Study committee members did not find a groundswell of support for consolidation of schools or streamlining education governance.
“There wasn’t a lot of energy to take it to the next step,” Punderson told the ACSU board on Monday. That next step would have been creating “articles of agreement” for creating a RED, something the study committee considered during the spring of 2013. The panel hired Vermont School Boards Association consultant John Everitt to assist in the goal of bringing the RED issue to a vote on Town Meeting Day this March.
Committee members were faced with the weighty task of proposing articles dealing with school closures and school board membership.
“We were headed in that direction, but there was a road block,” Punderson said. “We couldn’t agree as a committee on what those articles would look like.”
He explained that representatives of the smaller elementary schools voiced concerns that a new, consolidated board of directors might be more representative of the larger elementary schools and work toward closing the smallest schools. Representatives of the largest school (Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary) were concerned “that Middlebury residents would face higher tax rates should ACSU schools consolidate in governance and not in structure, meaning that Middlebury may be required to pay for the lack of efficiencies of scale present in the operation of small schools.”
Officials also discussed the possibility of a “doughnut” RED that would include the six outlying ACSU towns, but exclude Middlebury.
“It was felt that such a structure may avoid problems presented by the large enrollment disparity between Middlebury and the other elementary schools,” the report states. “However, such a structure didn’t address the desire for more pre-kindergarten-12 cohesion and seemed to be met with ambivalence even by ‘rural’ town members.”
So the committee decided to generate a more limited report outlining possible next steps in the RED discussion.
“It was decided that bringing the RED proposal to a public vote could be divisive for our school boards and towns, and harmful to community support for our schools as well as the fragile cohesion within the ACSU leadership,” the report states.
The committee’s 16-page report includes four recommendations and much data that members believe will serve the ACSU well into the future. Those recommendations include:
•  No vote on RED articles of agreement at this time.
“The committee asserts that more work is required by our new (ACSU) Superintendent (Peter Burrows), school boards and communities before a comprehensive plan for a change in our governance structure can be considered,” reads the report.
•  That ACSU-member communities “actively engage Burrows and his efforts to create a strategic plan to move the schools forward cohesively and collaboratively.”
•  To improve the ACSU’s ability to collect and analyze data that will allow the administration and school boards to assess and report on variations among school districts. Current data reveals that Mary Hogan Elementary has more than four times the students of each of the six smaller, rural schools in the ACSU; the capacity of each of the elementary school buildings exceeds enrollment; and all of the schools are interested in attracting tuitioned students to fill out the ranks and achieve economies of scale. The report also measures each of the seven towns’ per-pupil expenditures and tax rates.
•  To continue research on school governance issues so that the ACSU will be prepared to deal with the consolidation matter if it is raised again locally or by state officials in Montpelier.
Committee members acknowledged that forming a RED would have allowed ACSU towns to take advantage of some financial incentives that the state has set up to encourage school-related consolidations. Those incentives included a guarantee of “small school grants” over the next five years. The ACSU received $436,119 in small school grants during the 2012-2013 academic year, and the state might soon phase out those payouts. And supervisory unions that form REDs are also allowed to set a single homestead property tax rate among member towns. The state incentive allows participating towns an 8-cent decrease in the rate during the first year of the RED, followed by 6 cents, 4 cents and 2 cents in following years. At that point, REDs are expected to have achieved economies of scale to realize further savings.
Punderson stressed that the ACSU Study Committee report does not suggest that the door has been closed on future consolidation opportunities.
“We want to have this (discussion) continue,” he said. “We don’t want tonight to be the last time you hear about a RED.”
“We do hope this (ACSU) board uses this report,” said ID-4 board Chairwoman Ruth Hardy, who helped compile the document.
ACSU officials promised the report would not collect dust on a shelf.
“We want to use this data to take actionable steps,” Burrows said.
And he noted the ACSU has already taken some steps to become more efficient. Those steps include centralizing special education costs among the member schools, sharing personnel among schools, coordinated purchasing of many items, and negotiation of an ACSU-wide teachers’ contract.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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