ACSU group lobbies for school district unification

MIDDLEBURY — Addison Central Supervisory Union officials have launched a major public relations offensive in hopes of winning support for a unified school district governed by a single board and funded by a single budget.
Support from residents in all seven ACSU-member communities will be critical, officials said, because defeat of the unified district proposal — which by Act 46 must be voted on before July 1 — would prevent ACSU from pursuing an “accelerated merger” that would bring the greatest financial rewards for communities that embrace the new law.
Act 46 was passed by the 2015 Legislature and is designed to stabilize school costs and improve educational programs during this period of declining student enrollment in the Green Mountain State.
ACSU has established a charter committee to craft articles of agreement for the new district. Those articles would address such issues as dealing with each school district’s long-term debt; ownership of property and assets, such as school buildings; and how the seven ACSU-member towns will be represented on the unified board.
Members of the charter committee met before an audience of about 50 people at Mary Hogan School on Tuesday to explain the mechanics of creating a unified school district and the possible advantages of doing so, and how the change might affect ACSU towns economically and educationally.
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 towns of Middlebury, Shoreham, Bridport, Salisbury, Weybridge, Ripton and Cornwall. There are a combined total of 50 people serving on those boards and roughly 1,700 students in the nine ACSU schools.
Plans call for those boards to be replaced by a single, 15-member panel that would see to all the interests of the new district, which would have one per-pupil spending rate, instead of the current eight. Representation on that board — likely to be a key issue of concern — is to be proportional, based on the population of the member towns (one board member per 1,000 residents).
Currently the committee is proposing that Middlebury would get eight seats at the table; that there would be one each for the smaller communities of Shoreham, Cornwall, Salisbury, Ripton, Weybridge and Bridport; and one at-large member.
ID-4 board Chairwoman Ruth Hardy is co-leader of the charter committee. She told the crowd on Tuesday that unified governance would present three major advantages:
• More creative and quality educational opportunities for students in all seven towns.
• Equitable funding and more efficient operations across all of the schools.
• Greater support for all students, communities and families in ACSU.
If voters approve the change, the ACSU Superintendent Peter Burrows would report to a single board, which supervising the principals of all of the member-schools.
“It would be a much more streamlined and simplified system,” Hardy said.
Hardy pointed to statewide trend over the past five years that has seen education spending increase by 23 percent, staffing rise by 5.6 percent, but enrollment decline by more than 16 percent. She said ACSU has followed similar, though not quite as dramatic, trends.
“It is a trend that is hard to sustain,” Hardy said. “In many districts across the ACSU, you see more students in middle school and high school than you see in our elementary schools, so clearly there is a trend of declining enrollment in the ACSU.”
Drafters of Act 46 have stated that unified governance would lead to a greater sharing of resources among schools, more collaborative purchasing contracts and other efficiencies of scale. Lawmakers have also theorized that the formation of these unified districts would also promote serious conversations about eventually closing some of the smaller schools that are straining to remain financially viable while enrollment drops.
Hardy said ACSU is well positioned to make the transition to a unified district. Such a move, she said, would be consistent with ACSU’s new strategic plan. Hardy also noted ACSU has a master contract covering all of its teachers.
“We have done a lot of work during the past five years to get where we are going,” Hardy said.
The financial incentives for ACSU and other supervisory unions opting for the accelerated merger include:
• A reduction in property tax rates over a period of five years. That reduction would be 10 cents in year one, eight cents in year two, six cents on year three, four cents in year four, and two cents in the fifth and final year.
• Maintenance of the state’s Small Schools Grants for the ACSU’s six smaller elementary schools, representing a combined total of around $450,000. Losing that funding would essentially cost each of the schools a teaching position, officials said.
• A $150,000 grant to help fund the process of transitioning to a unified district.
Charter committee members would like to see the seven ACSU towns vote on the unified district proposal on Town Meeting Day next March, when turnout is typically high. It will be a busy day, with other referenda on local elections and budgets.
If any of the seven towns rejects the unified district question, the ACSU would need to consider a smaller unified district that would receive fewer financial incentives. Hardy said the Vermont Secretary of Education can assign any local school district that rejects unification to a larger district, unless that local district makes a compelling case.
And it is likely that the secretary would assign a dissenting ACSU town to the larger ACSU district anyway, since it will still be sending students to MUHS and MUMS and because of its geographic proximity to Middlebury. The dissenting community would also lose its Small Schools grant, according to provisions of Act 46.
Act 46 compels school districts to reorganize by 2020.
“We basically can’t continue as we are,” Hardy said.
The charter committee is also proposing that current school districts would transfer their real estate, property, fund-raising and capital debt to the new district. Officials said it is looking like no significant debt would be transferred from any of the seven towns.
The next steps in the process, according to Hardy: The charter committee will finish a draft charter this month to submit to local school boards for their review in November. Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe is scheduled to talk to ACSU officials and residents about Act 46 at a forum in Middlebury on Nov. 23.
The committee will present a draft of a unified district charter for approval by the Agency of Education this December. If the charter is approved on the state level, on Town Meeting Day, ACSU votes will vote on the new charters as well as on candidates for the new unified board.
At the same time, they will also vote on current school board membership and the schools’ 2016-2017 budget proposals, according to Hardy, because officials have to be prepared for both outcomes.
“We will do out absolute best to make sure voters understand that they are doing these dual elections at the same time,” Hardy said.
If the unified district is approved, there would be an organizational meeting in April. At that point, the transition would proceed toward the unified district beginning operations on July 1. On Dec. 31, 2017, the former school districts would cease to exist, Hardy said.
On Tuesday, charter committee members got a preview of some of the questions and concerns residents will voice during the many public meetings that will be held before those votes. Residents asked about, among other things, the composition of the unified board and the extent to which some communities might fare better economically than others under the new system.
“Small towns can be out-voted by Middlebury,” Weybridge resident Spence Putnam said. “That’s an issue that needs to be addressed going forward.”
Hardy said she believes a unified district would help sustain smaller schools. Allocating resources through a unified budget would, for example, allow smaller schools to better weather financial storms and perhaps preserve valued programming, such as world language offerings in Weybridge and Ripton. She acknowledged the unified district also raises the potential for individual ACSU schools to become magnet or charter schools, offering specialized programming to students.
“Right now, those opportunities are difficult to offer, because they are cross-district,” Hardy said.
Resident Heather Seeley raised the question of potential resentment that taxpayers in towns like Middlebury — which doesn’t have an elementary school world language program — might be asked to help sustain such programs in ACSU schools that do have such a program.
“We want to make sure we don’t get lost because we are the ‘big school,’” Seeley said.
Hardy said having a unified district would likely make it more possible to extend a world language program throughout the schools.
“We want a foreign language in (Mary Hogan Elementary) and we are jealous that Ripton and Weybridge have one,” Hardy said. “I would be shocked if Middlebury board members would take away a foreign language program.”
Other residents on Tuesday noted that Middlebury, with eight members on the unified board, could carry great sway on major policy decisions — such as whether to close a school. Hardy said the charter committee is considering the requirement of a super-majority vote on to authorize the closing of a school.
“I hope we would emphasize the carrot, rather than the stick,” former Middlebury Selectman John Tenny said of the committee’s work going forward. “This (unified district proposal) is a lesson in economic opportunity for all.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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