ANwSU takes a new look at unification
VERGENNES — The third effort to unify governance of Vergennes-area schools formally kicked off this past Wednesday, when about 20 residents met at Vergennes Union High School with the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Study Committee that must create a unification plan by the end of the year.
Act 46, made law this past spring by the Vermont Legislature, offers financial benefits to school districts that unify before this coming July.
And it threatens those that don’t come up with a unification plan by 2017. After that, the Vermont Board of Education can impose a plan of its own design on districts that have failed to act.
Stephen Dale, the former Vermont School Boards Association executive director who is helping ANwSU through the unification process, described the law this past Wednesday.
“There are incentives for acting quickly, and disincentives for not acting,” he said.
The incentives include:
• Decreases of 10 cents on the education property tax rate for district taxpayers during the first year of a 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.
• A “transition facilitation grant” of $150,000.
• Retention of Small Schools Grants, which will instead be known as the “merger support grants.” Addison Central School currently receives a Small School Grant of about $80,000 a year.
ANwSU officials have repeatedly stated that the retention of that grant and the tax rate breaks under unification will help ACS stay open, and they have no plans to close ACS under unification.
ANwSU and other districts considering unification plans must submit them to the Board of Education by Jan. 5 for consideration at a Jan. 19 meeting. If ANwSU’s plan is approved, officials will place it on the Town Meeting Day ballot, as well as voting for members for a new single board to take over governance in July 2017, when the change will take full effect.
The plan would have to earn backing in all five ANwSU towns to pass. In 2010, residents in all five towns backed unification, but a petitioned revote reversed that result in Addison.
Wednesday’s forum was the first of at least two major public events. The committee will also meet regularly; its next meeting will be this Tuesday at 6 p.m., followed by a Nov. 17 meeting at the same time; both will be held in the VUHS library and will include time for public comment and questions. Future meeting times will be posted online at anwsu.org’s calendar on the right side, and anwsu.org also has a prominent link devoted to unification.
At the Wednesday meeting, ANwSU board chairman Jeffry Glassberg said history has “pushed us toward centralization,” with one-room schoolhouses giving way to union schools, and the Legislature and Agency of Education mandating that transportation and special education be managed at the supervisory union level.
Now, Glassberg said, Act 46 is essentially a “Sword of Damocles” hanging over ANwSU, with sticks replacing carrots after a two-year window during which ANwSU can choose to unify voluntarily.
Dale also discussed the dollar-for-dollar penalty Act 46 will impose if school budgets exceed a spending threshold that three of the four ANwSU schools are already approaching. With health insurance premiums expected to rise by about 8 percent and teachers salaries also increasing, ANwSU officials acknowledge that their school boards will struggle with budgeting this winter.
Dale said many have criticized the spending cap, but the Legislature cannot provide relief in time to help this winter’s budgets.
“There’s some political energy to get rid of the piece by February, but boards will have to build budgets without that assumption,” he said.
In the long run, however, Dale said ANwSU voters might want to consider the tax savings Act 46 offers to districts that unify by next July, and also about the possible cost efficiencies of unification.
“It’s important to think about this activity in relation to the long-term budget challenges the boards will have,” he said.
Dale also expanded on Act 46, telling the audience and the committee to determine how it “applies in your particular region” and how best ANwSU should unify.
The Board of Education would prefer not to make choices for local supervisory unions, Dale said, but will almost certainly act if necessary.
“They are urging local folks to figure things out,” he said.
The committee and residents attending then broke into groups to talk about what the key issues might be in moving forward.
One group discussed:
• Education and enrichment programs at the three elementary schools and how they varied at each. Participants wondered how to make strengths at one school spread to all three schools without diluting existing programs; they also said such “inequities” needed to be identified.
Some saw unification as a chance to improve the quality of elementary school education by more easily sharing what works in one elementary school with the others.
“My hope is that … kids can get the same quality of education in any of the three,” said ACS board and study committee member Michele Kelly.
• One-board governance, and whether it would lose focus on specific needs on individual schools. Participants suggested school councils should be created to track those needs and advise and support the larger board.
• Transparency and accountability. One participant suggested it would be “easier to keep your eye on one board than three or four.”
• Class-sizes. Glassberg suggested that if a grade level among the elementary schools had dramatically different class sizes that students could be moved to equalize the class count, or that a grade level could be consolidated to save money. Glassberg said the committee should remember that saving money would help gain support from many residents, and that teachers’ salaries made up about 80 percent of ANwSU budgets.
• The potential closing of ACS. Kelly noted the school is in “perfect condition” and carries no debt load. “Why would you want to close a building like that?” she said. Committee member Kristina MacKulin answered: “Closing Addison Central School is not part of this process.”
• Control of local schools by a board that will meet at VUHS. Ferrisburgh parent Erica Andrus said she did not see that as an issue. “They’re going to come here anyway,” Andrus said.
• Getting ahead of the curve. Kelly said she foresaw larger changes coming down the road that ANwSU would be better equipped to handle as a unified union.
“In four years the discussion is going to be geographic mergers,” Kelly said. “If we can’t get along in our five towns, how are we going to get along with the broader world?”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].