ANwSU hopes to hear from citizens as Act 46 target nears
VERGENNES — The last of three Addison Northwest Supervisory Union community forums on the district’s effort to create a one-board system under Act 46 will be held on Monday at Ferrisburgh Central School from 6 to 8 p.m.
Act 46, made law this past spring, offers financial benefits to school districts — and their taxpayers — that unify their governance systems before this coming July, changes that require a Town Meeting Day vote.
The ANwSU Act 46 committee — which is charged with creating a unified governance plan and submitting it for Vermont Board of Education approval in January and then to a district-wide vote in March — is still seeking feedback from residents about how that proposal should be designed.
An ANwSU plan would require support from residents in all five union towns to become a reality.
The Act 46 committee is also scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. this Thursday in the Vergennes Union High School library, and another meeting will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 5. Meetings are open to the public.
Given the timetable, finished articles of unification must be ready for that January gathering. ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning believes that target date is feasible because the committee has already produced a draft of the articles of agreement that details how the new governance system would work and outlines ANwSU towns’ obligations and rights.
But Canning said the committee remains open to ANwSU residents’ suggestion on how things should work; for example, Ferrisburgh and Addison officials are working on memorandums of understanding about school property ownership that ANwSU officials then plan to reference in the articles of agreement.
Still, the committee and Canning would like to hear from more residents.
“What we have to figure out going forward is how do we reach the people who don’t read the Addison Independent, who don’t look at social media, that will not get on the district website,” Canning said. “I still think there’s an element of that population that still has no idea what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Nor, she said, do many understand what is at stake.
Act 46 offers incentives to supervisory unions that consolidate by July, and creates potential consequences to those that do not, including state-designed consolidation and an end to Small School Grants. Addison Central School currently receives about $80,000 a year through such a grant.
“The two options are that we really take control of the destiny of the future of these towns under a single school district, or have the state do it to us,” Canning said. “I don’t think there is an option to do nothing. I think people still believe that we should do nothing. And if we do that, by doing nothing, our future will be decided for us.”
Information on Act 46 and the ANwSU one-board unification process is also available at anwsu.org, as is a link to a panel discussion among Canning, process consultant Steve Dale and Ferrisburgh parent Tracey Newton about the efforts to unify the governance of the four ANwSU schools.
That video may also be found online at www.retn.org/show/addison-northwest-supervisory-union-act-46-panel-discu….
Officials also plan to put a survey up at the anwsu.org website by early next week, one that will be publicized through parent newsletters, and they are working on brochures that will go out to every ANwSU household. Other information may also be found on the anwsu.org website and social media.
INCENTIVES & PENALTIES
ANwSU would see several financial incentives if it unified governance by the end of this fiscal year (see box).
Incentives for districts that fail to consolidate before July 2017, ANwSU’s target date, are not as generous.
Act 46 also imposes a dollar-for-dollar penalty on school budgets that exceed a defined per-student spending threshold, one that three of the four ANwSU schools are approaching.
With health insurance premiums for ANwSU expected to rise by about 8 percent and teachers’ salaries also increasing, ANwSU officials say their school boards will struggle with budgeting this winter.
The Legislature plans to reconsider that spending threshold during this session, but any relief will not come in time to help this winter’s budget process.
ANwSU officials have said that, given the fiscal crunch, 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 offerings and personnel among the three ANwSU elementary schools.
ISSUES IN ADDISON
ANwSU officials have also said the retention of the Small School Grant and the tax rate breaks under unification will help Addison Central School stay open, and they have no plans to close ACS under unification.
On Dec. 1, the study committee hosted a community forum at ACS that drew seven community members and five school officials and employees.
As was the case at an earlier forum at VUHS and will be at the upcoming Ferrisburgh Central School forum (Monday, Dec. 14, at 6 p.m.), attendees were asked three questions about unification: What they saw as the greatest opportunities, what were their greatest concerns, and what recommendations they had for the committee.
Responses to the first question, according to responses collected by the committee, included:
• “Opportunity for efficiency in Central Office.”
• “School choice across the district.”
• “Expanded enrichment opportunity,” a reference to the chance to share programs across the ANwSU elementary schools.
To the question of concerns, responses included:
• That school choice among the elementary schools “could depopulate one school.” ANwSU officials have said there would be some limits on choice.
• How transportation would work with school choice.
• How student-teacher ratios could be managed if the ANwSU office could move teachers among schools depending on student counts, and whether staff would be cut.
• What might happen if ACS closed, and the town wanted to re-open it, but lacked the authority to do so.
• Whether ACS would close if there were no savings realized.
Individual recommendations included that:
• The articles should allow ACS to close only with Addison’s approval.
• That a town should be allowed to withdraw from the union if its school is to be closed.
In recent discussions between selectboard and Ferrisburgh Central School board members, the issue of not wanting to give up ownership of town school property to ANwSU has been a focus. At recent selectboard meetings some residents have echoed that concern.
But Canning said they should be happy with language being developed for the ANwSU articles of agreement, which she called improved from that found in articles used in ANwSU’s previous unification attempts, most recently in 2010.
“That was always the intent, even in the previous articles,” she said. “But our language is more clear that that would happen, that property if no longer used for educational purposes would go back to the town,”
Canning said that was just one issue she believes is being better handled this time than in previous ANwSU unification attempts.
“The report we’re creating is much more comprehensive, hopefully, and has much more specificity in it than the previous report, addressing some of the past concerns raised by the community,” she said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]