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Editorial: Smart move by the ACSU board

Last Friday, the ACSU Executive Board voted to pursue a proposal that could form a single consolidated K-12 district, if approved by voters in elections held as soon as next March. That unified district would operate a single, over-arching budget and handle operating decisions for the nine schools in the seven participating towns and be governed by a single school board.
For ACSU district residents—comprised of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge—what’s important to know is that the vote is about school governance, not school consolidation. And because the district is already over the 900-pupil threshold, no other schools need be merged into the district. What is lost are the seven elementary school boards and the middle school/high school board, which would all be combined into one district board. What’s gained is better coordination between the elementary schools and the secondary schools, and more administrative time spent focused on educating students as opposed to managing nine separate school boards and attending those meetings.
Nonetheless, the controversy over the proposed change is unavoidable: Many residents will fight against the perceived loss of local control of their elementary schools. All involved should recognize it is a legitimate concern. The district’s challenge will be to assure residents, through implementation of committees or other governance structures, they will have measures in place to exercise as much input in their town schools as they have today. If they cannot, it is unlikely voters will approve the proposal.
Why pursue the change? The easy answer is the potential for cost savings due to attractive incentives incorporated into Act 46, the state’s new education reform law that was passed by the Legislature as H.361. School districts that qualify for the deepest incentives will see a decrease of 10 cents on the education property tax rate during the first year of the governance unification, followed by 8 cents in the second year, 6 cents in year three, 4 cents in year four, and 2 cents in year five. Plus, there is a $150,000 grant to help in the transition, and qualifying schools will be able to keep their Small School Grants, which comes to a total of $460,000 each year for the ACSU district.
The carrots in Act 46 are compelling. As are the sticks. Schools that don’t pursue governance consolidation by set dates will have to submit operating plans to the Vermont Board of Education by July 1, 2019, justifying why that plan is best suited to meet the academic goals of Act 46. School districts that go on their own will not be eligible for the tax-cut incentives and may be subject to losing the Small School Grants for those schools that qualify.
While cost savings are the driving force behind the decision to act, the long-term benefit is increasing the level of educational opportunity among all the district schools and doing it in a cost-effective manner. Added educational opportunities are also foreseen through the coordination of a district-wide budget. In an era of dwindling school populations, scale can make a difference.
What is also encouraging is that ACSU Superintendent Peter Burroughs is conducting the initial research and cost-analysis of the proposal in coordination with other Vermont schools and state education officials. No sense being an outlier in a community in which many schools are working hard to sort out the best ways to proceed for the benefit of students and taxpayers. The move to consolidate governance, however, won’t of itself greatly reduce school spending. Rather, the promise for real savings lies in the coordinated use of funds throughout the district that allows smarter planning and more efficient use of dollars to achieve better academic outcomes.
In short, it’s a smart move by the district board to act early and begin educating elementary school boards of the process and the potential impact of the proposal. Town residents will want to follow along, asking their town elementary school boards for updates and ample opportunity for discussion along the way.
Residents within the other county school districts might ask their boards if a similar move also makes sense for them.
Angelo S. Lynn

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