ANwSU invites public to school consolidation forums next week

VERGENNES — Addison Northwest Supervisory Union officials have scheduled community forums in Addison and Ferrisburgh to explain to and get feedback from residents about the district’s effort to unify under Vermont’s new education law, Act 46.
Act 46, made law this past spring, offers financial benefits to school districts — and their taxpayers — that unify their governance under one common school board before this coming July.
ANwSU has formed a study committee that hopes to have a one-board governance plan in place by the end of this year, one that can win Vermont Board of Education approval in January and then the backing of voters in the five ANwSU communities in March.
The upcoming unification discussion sessions have been scheduled at Addison Central School on Monday, Dec. 1, and at Ferrisburgh Central School on Tuesday, Dec. 14. Both meetings are scheduled to run from 6 to 8 p.m.
The study committee is also scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. on Dec. 10 in the Vergennes Union High School library. Meetings are open to the public. Information on Act 46 and the ANwSU one-board unification process is also available at anwsu.org.
Act 46 offers consolidated governance incentives that 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 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.
Act 46 also gives the Vermont Board of Education the authority to impose unification plans on districts that fail to unify voluntarily, and the incentives for districts that do not consolidate before July are not as generous.
Any unification proposal would have to earn backing in all five ANwSU towns to pass.
Act 46 also imposes a dollar-for-dollar penalty on school budgets that 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.
The Legislature will reconsider that cap this winter, but relief will not come in time to help this winter’s budgets.
 ANwSU officials have said given the fiscal crunch that district residents might want to consider the tax savings Act 46 offers to districts that unify by next July, and also consider the possible cost efficiencies of unification.
They also say that there are potential educational benefits, such as more easily sharing educational and extracurricular offerings — and personnel — among the three ANwSU elementary schools.
The ANwSU voted several times in the past decade on plans to unify its governance, but those efforts were defeated over residents’ concerns that ACS might close and that Vergennes school taxes would have risen.
Some residents have also expressed concerns about previous proposals that called for collective ownership of all four ANwSU schools and joint assumption of the debt on each school, given that debt loads have varied.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]

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