ANwSU unification articles nearly done; tax savings, benefits seen
VERGENNES — The Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Act 46 Study Committee was set to meet on Dec. 30 to finish its final unification report, including proposed Articles of Agreement, thus setting the stage for a March 1 vote on whether to transform ANwSU into a Unified District under the governance of one board.
Barring anything unforeseen, ANwSU officials will immediately forward the report and the unification articles to the Vermont Board of Education, which will meet on Jan. 5 to begin its review. That board has until Jan. 19 to, as is expected, OK the ANwSU report.
That state board approval would mean the March 1 vote is officially on the agenda in all five ANwSU communities. As has been the case in three previous ANwSU unification efforts, most recently in 2011, a yes vote in all five will be required for one-board governance to become law in ANwSU, which now operates with five boards running its four schools.
In 2010 and 2011, all five towns did vote yes, but the result each time was overturned by petition in one town, even though the margin in favor grew both times over an original 2005 rejection.
Now, ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning said even though she thinks many people still don’t fully understand Act 46, the new law that creates incentives for districts that merge governance and penalties for those that fail to do so, she is optimistic for a positive outcome.
“I believe that we are growing in people’s understanding and support,” Canning said. “If history tells you anything, over the course of the three votes, the number of people supporting unification did increase. So maybe the fourth time is the charm.”
Act 46’s key 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 2 cents in year five.
• A “transition facilitation grant” of $150,000.
• Retention of Small Schools Grants, which will be known as the “merger support grants.” Addison Central School currently receives a Small School Grant of about $80,000 a year, an amount equal to about 5 percent of its budget.
The Final Report from the study committee sums up ANwSU’s view of the main disincentive: “Should our towns decide not to pursue a unification on our own terms, it is likely that the state board will order such a merger to be effective on July 1, 2019. If that should occur, we will receive none of the benefits outlined above and the impact on all towns will be substantial.”
Notable items in the Articles of Agreement, which are part of the Final Report that may be found at anwsu.org, include:
• The Unified District board will consist of four members each from Ferrisburgh and Vergennes, two from Addison, and one each from Panton and Waltham. A vote for the new board will be held in March, but the new board would not take over operations until July 2017, when the Unified District would take full effect.
• All “forming districts” (Addison and Ferrisburgh central schools; Vergennes, Panton and Waltham, who send students to Vergennes Union Elementary School; and Vergennes Union High School) will convey real and personal property to the new “Unified District” for $1.
This section notes the Act 46 provision, “It is not the State’s intent to close its small schools, but rather to ensure that those schools have the opportunity to enjoy the expanded educational opportunities and economies of scale” afforded by “larger, more flexible governance models.” The new district will assume all debts and operating surpluses, if any.
• Each school within the Unified District will remain open for at least four years unless its host town votes to close it. After four years, a school can be closed by a majority vote of the Unified District board. Closed schools will be returned to towns for $1, unless the town chooses not to accept the property. In that case, the Unified District would sell it.
• In the first year of Unified District operation, students would attend their traditional schools. During that year, a new collective bargaining agreement would also be negotiated to take effect when existing contracts expire.
The Final Report includes a description of potential tax savings (see sidebar story).
The report makes other cases for considering unification, both financial and educational:
• “The current structure of education in the ANwSU region and the history of unified efforts make our region ideally suited to come together in a timely fashion in order to achieve the educational benefits of unification, to position the region to manage per-student costs as we face continued decreases in enrollment, and to allow our taxpayers to benefit from accelerated financial incentives available through Act 46.”
• “Although immediate savings will be modest, there is substantial value in shifting administrative focus to effective management and education quality.” The report pegs the initial savings at between $40,000 and $70,000 per year due to items such as lower auditing and board management costs.
• “The greatest financial benefit over time will come from being able to manage staffing levels across the new district. Overall student enrollment is expected to continue to decline, requiring flexibility and creativity to ensure students get an excellent education at a cost that local voters will support.”
Canning added being able to move staff more freely without site-specific contractual constraints would give administrators the ability to save money and share effective programs among the elementary schools.
• “The same benefits would also be realized by nonprofessional staff.” Canning added afterschool programs, technology specialists and even maintenance staff could be more easily shared within a unified district.
In general, Canning compared this report favorably to previous ANwSU unification reports
“I think we did a better job of explaining the benefits and opportunities of this unification,” she said. “We answered some of the questions that had come up previously.”
She credited a committee that she said not only worked long hours, but came together to reconcile at times differing opinions.
“I was really impressed with the commitment of the members of this committee. We had almost 100 percent attendance at each of the meetings,” Canning said. “It’s a tribute to the hard work of all these individuals that we were able to come together.”
Canning said a few details regarding town property would be worked out either at the Dec. 30 meeting, or in some cases down the road. The committee came close to a complete report on Dec. 18, but did not want to rush a few issues, she said.
In Vergennes, language dealing with the fire station cropped up: If it is ever sold, an agreement calls for revenue to be shared with city schools. Given that the city would no longer own its schools, new language is needed, Canning said.
City officials also want to pin down rights-of-way across property it now owns to be able to maintain recreation facilities, access a sewer line that runs behind VUES, and reach the rear of a property it owns off of New Haven Road, Canning said.
In Ferrisburgh, the school sits on 23 acres that include a skating rink, over which a roof is planned, and playing fields that are also used in the summer. Canning said the town’s selectboard and school board are working out details on how to make sure use of those facilities is protected.
In Addison, ownership of the land around the town clerk’s office, the central school and the former town hall is a patchwork, and school and town uses overlap. Also, the town is looking at a communal septic system to the west and striking a deal that would involve exchanging some of the parcels involved. Canning said those issues will probably be worked out in the months to come.
“They wanted to have some sort of agreement about that, but they don’t have time before the articles must be completed. So that will still be an open topic,” she said. “The Addison board will still be in operation for a full year and could take a role in that.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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