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Top stories of 2015: #2 — Voters reject school funding plans; lawmakers push consolidation

When school boards were wrapping up their budget proposals last January they knew that 2015 would be a difficult year in terms of money, but few knew just how difficult it would get. Bristol Elementary, for instance, was looking at six job cuts, Vergennes Union High School planned to cut the equivalent of three full-time teaching positions and a maintenance job as well as cutting funding for some extracurriculars, and the Hannaford Career Center was seeing a 2 percent spending increase but a 14.7 percent tuition increase.
When voters went to the polls on Town Meeting Day many said the cost of educating our children had become unsustainable. In the northern half of Addison County five school budgets in two supervisory unions were rejected. Residents said “no” to spending plans for Vergennes and Mount Abraham union high schools, Ferrisburgh Central School, Monkton Central School and Bristol Elementary School. At town meeting in Starksboro they amended the elementary school budget upward and OK’d the spending plan, but soon after a petition called for a revote on the grounds that many people who did not come to the meeting would not have approved such an increase. Some 200 people showed up to the revote meeting for Starksboro — so many that they held it in the Mount Abe auditorium.
By the middle of June all of the budgets were finally approved — residents voted three times on the VUHS, Mount Abe and Bristol Elementary spending plans.
Clearly, something had to be done about school spending. The Legislature took its most serious crack at the problem in years when it passed Act 46, a law that offers financial incentives to supervisory unions that agree to establish a single, consolidated K-12 school district that would be governed by a single board. The goal was to lower costs by getting economies of scale, while also improving educational opportunities by sharing resources across more schools.
The Addison Central Supervisory Union was among the first in the state to embrace the Act 46 governance consolidation effort. The Middlebury-area district, which had studied consolidation the previous year, convened a study committee over the summer and was well into writing a merger plan early in the fall. The “articles of agreement” were finished by mid-November and sent to the State Board of Education for their consideration in December. In the Brandon area, the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union also got its consolidation plan in to the State Board in time for a December decision.
Aside from the overall benefits of consolidation, the law also included some sweeteners designed to move some districts along the path faster. For instance, school districts on the accelerated schedule of governance consolidation would get 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, though under the name “merger support grants.”
Both the ACSU and RNeSU got the state’s blessing and now residents will get to vote on the respective consolidation plans — people who live in the eight-town RNeSU will vote on Jan. 19; those in the seven-town ACSU will vote on Town Meeting Day, March 1. All the towns in a district would have to approve the plan for it to pass.
Also looking to get some of the benefits of unification is the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union, which is expected to send its consolidation plan to the state this week, which could result in a March 1 vote by folks in its five towns. ANwSU has voted on governance consolidation three times in the past decade.
But as the year drew to a close, school boards across the state were complaining about another aspect of Act 46 — the one that set guidelines for increases in per-pupil spending in every town in Vermont. Most towns would see rate increases of a percent or two, but with school health insurance costs going up 8 percent, for instance, staying under those guidelines was proving difficult. Towns that exceeded them would face a tax penalty.
With the legislative session set to open this week, lawmakers were saying that they would take a serious look at those guidelines and could act quickly to change them if it is warranted.

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