ANwSU board members get initial look at unification law

VERGENNES — Many members of the five Addison Northwest Supervisory Union boards and several residents of the five district towns gathered at Vergennes Union High School on Wednesday to hear a review of school governance and unification provisions in a new Vermont law — and how quickly ANwSU might have to take action.
Act 46 creates incentives for school districts to unify their governance structures. ANwSU has tried to unify in three separate years and voted in favor of unification in 2010 and 2011, only to see petitioned re-votes reverse the outcomes.
ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning said this past Wednesday’s gathering was strictly educational, with no decisions asked for or made.
At the same time, Canning said ANwSU board members need to be aware that for the district to take full advantage of Act 46 incentives — including five years of breaks on the statewide tax rate starting at a 10-cent discount for the first year, and a $150,000 merger grant — they must plan unification and hold a successful vote within the next 12 months.
And they must understand there could eventually be penalties — including the loss of Addison Central School’s Small Schools Grant — for not unifying, unless the district supplies a non-unified plan that passes muster with the Vermont Board of Education.
“We need to pay very close attention to the timelines, because it’s a very tight turnaround,” Canning said.  
Canning said she will not make recommendations, but will make sure board members are aware of the pluses and minuses.
“I think the superintendent’s role at this point is to provide information to the boards. A decision such as this that affects the community at large is really a board decision,” Canning said. “The role I’m going to play is keeping them on track on making a decision at some point within the constraints of the law … and find out what they want to do in the next step.”
There are other options within Act 46. What Canning is discussing is the “accelerated merger” timetable, which would require a district to have a least 900 students, hold a vote by July 1, 2016, and be operational under new governance by July 1, 2017.
The incentives offered include:
• Decreases of 10 cents on the statewide education property tax rate in the first year of the governance merger, 8 cents in the second year, 6 cents in the third, 4 cents in the fourth, and 2 cents in the fifth and final year.
Act 46 also caps tax increases in districts that merge at 5 percent. 
• The $150,000 merger grant. 
• Retention of Small Schools Grants, which will be called “merger support grants.” Addison’s current Small Schools Grant exceeds $70,000, Canning said. 
• An exemption from repaying construction aid if the district’s plan includes closing a building.
Canning said ANwSU does not have plans to close a school.
“Through the encouragement of unification, the secretary wants to see a plan that addresses equity, quality and sustainability,” she said.
“If a community feels so strongly that a school is the center of what goes on in that community, then the new supervisory district should consider things like different grade configurations, or theme-based (schools). Because if you’ve got now full school choice for the three elementary schools, if each of them had their own theme, or special curriculum, then the idea would be that parents would want to opt in.”
Act 46 also allows supervisory unions to follow a “delayed merger” process by forming a unified district by July 1, 2019, or forming a “modified unified union school district.” Act 46, however, offers lower financial incentives for those approaches.
If supervisory unions do not explore mergers, they must by July 1, 2019, formally explain to the state how their current structure provides the best means of meeting Act 46’s educational goals. The Vermont Board of Education will rule on whether those governance structures are acceptable.
For ANwSU, Canning said the takeaway was that Act 46 assigned Vergennes-area school board members some homework on how the different options might affect their schools and students.  
“We need to start doing our own modeling,” she said. “We are going to have to start trying to predict what kind of effect this is going to have on our local schools.”
Canning also emphasized that while Act 46 targets financial savings through more streamlined governance, it also points to better educational outcomes by more efficient sharing of resources, something she said a fully unified ANwSU could also better provide.
“It’s important this conversation is not about money. It is about providing better opportunities for kids,” she said. “I want to see all kids have access to music programs, instrumental programs, afterschool 21st Century Programs, math and literacy support.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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