ACSU launches bid to form unified school district

MIDDLEBURY — Residents in the seven Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) towns will vote as soon as next March on a proposal to form a single school board that would have oversight over a single education budget for what would be a consolidated K-12 district.
The ACSU Executive Board decided to take that route following its meeting last Friday, June 12, during which the panel discussed at length Act 46, the state’s new education reform law. That law offers financial incentives to supervisory unions that agree to establish a single, consolidated school district that would be governed by a single board.
The ACSU is currently made up of nine school boards — one that establishes ACSU policy, another that presides over Middlebury Union middle and high schools, and one for each of the seven elementary schools in the ACSU-member towns of Middlebury, Shoreham, Bridport, Salisbury, Weybridge, Ripton and Cornwall.
Under Act 46, those nine boards would be supplanted by a single board that would make budgeting and operating decisions for all schools within the district. If the new structure is approved before July 1, 2016, residents in the seven towns would vote annually on a single K-12 spending plan.
“We are excited about it,” ACSU board Chairman Rick Scott said of the planning process for a unified school district. “There is a lot of energy and enthusiasm behind this.
“The time is right,” he added.
Scott believes it’s the right time because the ACSU is well positioned to make the transition to a single district, and because doing so would allow district towns to receive a windfall of financial incentives built into Act 46.
Supervisory unions like the ACSU that submit to an “accelerated merger” timetable (a vote by July 1 of next year) would be offered such incentives as:
•  A decrease of 10 cents on the education property tax rate during the first year of the governance merger, followed by 8 cents in year two; 6 cents in year three; 4 cents in year four; and finally, 2 cents in year five.
Act 46 also stipulates a 5-percent maximum tax rate increase per former district, and no limits on tax rate reductions.
•  A “transition facilitation grant” of up to $150,000.
•  The ability to retain their Small Schools Grants, which will instead be known as the “merger support grant.” That’s key for the seven ACSU elementary schools, which receive a combined total of $460,000 each year through the grant program. That’s around $80,000 per school, or the total cost of a teaching position, Scott noted.
Supervisory unions that don’t embrace Act 46 will lose their small school grants.
•  An exemption from repaying construction aid if the district’s plan includes closing a building.
In order to qualify for the accelerated merger process, the new supervisory union district must have a minimum average daily membership (enrollment) of 900 students and can be ready to operate as of July 1, 2017. The new district can be made up by schools exclusively within the supervisory union, or in collaboration with a neighboring supervisory district. The unified school district would need to be approved by ACSU voters between July 1, 2015, and July 1, 2016, and would also need to be OK’d by the State Board of Education.
It should be noted that Act 46 also allows supervisory unions to take the less aggressive approaches of following a “delayed merger” process (calling for formation of a unified district by July 1, 2019); or forming a “modified unified union school district.” Those approaches offer slightly less return in financial incentives.
If supervisory unions are not exploring a merger, they must submit to the state by July 1, 2019, a proposal outlining how their current structure is the best means of meeting the goals set forth in Act 46. Plans will be vetted by the Vermont Board of Education.
The General Assembly passed H.361 this past session and Gov. Shumlin signed it into law as Act 46. Lawmakers and Shumlin saw it as a means by which to contain the growth of education spending in Vermont, a state that continues to experience declining student enrollment. Vermont has lost 20,000 students during the past 20 years, according to the Shumlin administration.
Supporters of Act 46 — including Rep. Dave Sharpe, a Bristol Democrat and chairman of the House Education Committee — contend that the measure will significantly cut administrative expenses and encourage more sharing of resources among schools within the unified districts. The Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office has estimated Act 46 could save upwards of $32 million annually in education costs statewide.
Sharpe praised the ACSU for its proactive stance on Act 46.
“This action by the ACSU board creates an exciting opportunity,” he said. “Communities in the ACSU are looking to do what is best for all our students while finding some savings. These actions should provide better opportunities for students, protect small schools and preserve important educational programs. This kind of cooperation and innovation is exactly what we had hoped for.”
Scott said ACSU officials will spend the coming months following state-mandated steps that could lead to a district-wide vote on the unified supervisory district next March. Those steps include forming a unified district study committee that will have access to state grant money. The study committee will generate a report that will be reviewed by local school boards and the Vermont State Board of Education to ensure compliance with Act 46.
The ACSU Executive Board will spend this summer explaining the unified district planning process to local school directors, who will be invited to give their feedback, according to Scott. He is encouraged by the level of support Act 46 has engendered already among the majority of school boards in the ACSU.
“Our hope and belief is that all districts will approve and will want to roll forward with this,” he said.
One of the major things the committee will have to sort out will be composition of the unified district board. Will seats be awarded based on the populations of member towns, selected at-large, or based on equal membership per town? Committee membership figures to be a key issue among communities that will want to make sure their local schools’ needs don’t get lost within the context of a single, K-12 spending plan for the entire unified district.
It’s a debate that won’t be foreign to the ACSU, which in 2013 formed a Governance Study Committee as part of Act 153. That voluntary law provided incentives to communities interested in forming Regional Education Districts (RED) among two or more schools. The Governance Study Committee held public forums in all seven ACSU communities and released a final report in February of 2014.
The committee found little support for pursuing an RED, and the ACSU chose not proceed along that path.
But times have changed, as have the resources available for running public schools, Scott noted.
“Act 46 has more incentives, and more disincentives if you don’t act,” Scott said.
He believes Act 46 offers the ACSU “an opportunity to increase the level of equity in educational programming for all students,” and do it in a manner that would create “less of a burden on the taxpayers.”
Peter Conlon, chairman of the UD-3 board that governs MUMS and MUHS, agreed.
“Act 46 is providing some important carrots, and some sticks we may not want to encounter,” said Conlon, also a member of the ACSU board.
Peter Burrows, superintendent of the ACSU, is already exploring the financial impact that Act 46 could have on the district.
“We are engaged in building a cost model to look at what our savings would be across all of our districts if we had one consolidated board,” Burrows said.
Along with cost-modeling, ACSU administrators are looking at potential increased educational opportunities that Act 46 might afford. The ACSU is performing its research in collaboration with a handful of other supervisory unions and state education officials.
“We realize it doesn’t make sense to work in isolation when we’ve got lots of other people with a lot of expertise pursuing these same kinds of things,” Burrows said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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