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State OKs ACSU merger plan, and Otter Valley merger

MIDDLEBURY — The Vermont Agency of Education (AOE) last week gave its seal of approval to governance consolidation plans for three school districts — including one in the Middlebury area and one in the Brandon area.
The Dec. 15 decision paves the way for residents in the seven communities the Addison Central Supervisory Union to decide on March 1 whether their schools should be governed by a single board and funded through a single budget.
People who live in the eight-town Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union will vote on their consolidation proposal on Jan. 19. The third district that got the OK was Rutland Southeast.
“I was very pleased with the support we received from the AOE,” said Ruth Hardy, chairwoman of the ID-4 school board in Middlebury and leader of the ACSU Charter Committee. “It was a unanimous vote. We received some very positive and supportive comments from them as well.”
State Board of Education member Mark Perrin was supportive of the ACSU plan, but abstained from voting. That’s because Perrin is also a member of the UD-3 School Board, which represents the interests of Middlebury Union middle and high schools.
RNeSU Superintendent Jeanne Collins said the AOE approval sets the stage for Brandon-area schools to try such things as elementary school choice while sharing expenses across a wider tax base.
“It’s a win-win for us, as so much is already in place,” Collins told VTDigger.org. (See RNeSU story, Page 1.)
It took around 30 minutes for the state board to hear the ACSU contingent’s presentation and approve the plan, according to Hardy.
ACSU will put its consolidation proposal before voters on Town Meeting Day. Residents will also be asked to elect the 13 members of a new Addison Central School District board that will supplant the eight separate panels that currently provide leadership in the ACSU.
Based on population counts, Middlebury would have seven people on the board. There would be one each from the other ACSU towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. This is analogous to the current composition of the UD-3 board, officials noted.
“From my perspective, we are already doing this,” Perrin said of consolidated governance through the UD-3 board.
And in a late breaking development, Hardy announced a change in the manner in which the district board members will be elected. All 13 members will be elected at-large, as opposed to each community only electing its own delegate(s). It is hoped this would somewhat soften the impact of population-dominant Middlebury’s large majority on the new district board, Hardy explained.
“We were able to compromise on the proportionality and at-large voting for the board,” she said. “With at-large voting, there’s a precedent for allowing a level of disproportionality in the representation on the board. With at-large voting, the tendency is that members of a board who are voted for at-large tend to … feel responsible to all the voters, and not simply the voters in their own towns.”
Transitioning to a global board charged with looking after the interests of all district children is a major underpinning of Act 46, the new law that is encouraging supervisory unions to consolidate school governance during this period of declining enrollment in the Vermont. And state lawmakers also believe governance consolidation will provide long-term financial stability for public schools by promoting shared teachers and other resources, along with reduced bureaucracy and a greater emphasis on classroom teaching. Supervisory unions like the ACSU that have opted for accelerated mergers under Act 46 are in line for financial advantages, including a decrease of 10 cents on the education property tax rate during the first year of the 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. The participating SUs will also receive a one-time “transition facilitation grant” of $150,000 and the ability to retain their Small Schools Grants.
ACSU officials have crunched some numbers on estimated, cumulative education property tax savings for each of the seven towns during the five years following the merger. The decrease in the local tax rate over five years — based on state assistance and savings through combining resources — is expected to be $2.13 for Weybridge, $1.58 for Ripton, 93 cents for Shoreham, 53 cents for Bridport, 51 cents for Cornwall, 47 cents for Salisbury, and 2 cents for Middlebury. These estimates assume equivalent expense and revenue increases for all districts, generally level enrollment, and financial incentives and disincentives included in Act 46. The tax rate comparisons are also calculated prior to Common Level of Appraisal adjustments.
All seven ACSU communities will have to vote in favor of the accelerated merger on Town Meeting Day in order for it to pass. Failing that (or a successful revote), the towns that voted in favor of the merger could pursue a modified plan that could exclude the town(s) that voted “no.” Ultimately, the Agency of Education will have authority to place a “no”-voting town into a unified district of its choosing.
Hardy noted the state board on Dec. 15 asked if the ACSU might be willing to accept an additional community into its unified district if such a request were made. ACSU officials replied that they would not close the door on such a request, but added the district for now will look to take care of its own.
PUBLIC OUTREACH
With state approval now in hand, ACSU Charter Committee members will hold a series of public meetings to explain the governance consolidation proposal and its impacts. Members will also network with other groups to pass along the information, and cast an even wider net through the Addison Independent and social media.
The Charter Committee officials also want to encourage people to run for the new Addison Central School District board (petitions are due Jan. 25). And there will be separate elections on Town Meeting Day involving terms that are up on the current UD-3 and elementary school boards. These boards would remain in effect during the transition to the new district (if it is approved).
Plans would call for the new district to begin operations on July 1, 2017. As a legal matter, the Addison Central Supervisory Union would cease to exist on Jan. 31, 2018.
People are going to have to absorb a lot of information before next March, Perrin acknowledged.
“Let’s face it, change is not easy,” Perrin said. “This is a huge undertaking and a huge paradigm shift.”
But Perrin believes school governance consolidation would be a change for the better.
“Something different has to be done,” he said. “The Legislature has spoken about this loud and clear, and it is time now to start that process.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]. VTDigger.org contributed to this story.

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