ANeSU working toward district unity

MONKTON — Residents of the five towns in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union could vote on a plan to unify governance and budgeting across the district’s six schools by Town Meeting Day 2017, or possibly as soon as next November’s elections.
That was the message from a member of the ANeSU Act 46 Study Committee in a report she gave to the Monkton Central School Board this past Thursday evening.
Act 46, enacted last spring, offers financial incentives for Vermont towns to merge in multi-school districts governed by a single board and funded by a single budget, with the goal of reining in spending and improving education. The law describes a multi-year process toward unification, but schools that don’t join a larger union by 2019 could be required by the state Board of Education to join a union.
Although ANeSU is on a timeline to meet that goal, Jennifer Stanley’s report on the committee’s progress thus far also revealed significant differences among committee members as to the goals and desirability of district unification.
“We have a little bit of a philosophical divide,” said Stanley, Monkton Central School board clerk. “I think that the committee right now is struggling a little bit to get some direction and some momentum going.”
Stanley said there are diverse viewpoints on the committee.
“We have some folks who really do not have a lot of enthusiasm for the idea of merging together,” she told the Monkton board. “There definitely are folks who I think are really holding out for ‘We probably really don’t need to merge. We can either do nothing or we can do something that’s totally different than what the state has envisioned.’ So we’re trying to work through some of that.”
ANeSU Interim Superintendent Armando Vilaseca, present at the Jan. 6 Act 46 Study Committee meeting, told the MCS board he was a bit frustrated with the study committee’s forward progress.
“Even something as simple as deciding what does ‘local’ mean — that came up from somebody that was at the last Act 46 meeting,” Vilaseca said. “So, yeah, I’m frustrated, and I think I even said I was frustrated at the last meeting.”
Act 46 offers incentives and deadlines for school district unification (see sidebar).
At the Monkton board meeting last week, both Stanley and Vilaseca outlined steps that were being taken to move the Act 46 discussion forward. An important direction, both emphasized, is gathering and analyzing data on the demographics of the ANeSU schools. This would provide an important foundation for analyzing the challenges and opportunities of district unification. Assistant Superintendent Catrina DiNapoli will make a presentation on the state of the district at the study committee’s Jan. 27 meeting. It is expected to provide a more comprehensive overview of all district schools.
Many on the committee, said Stanley, are interested in seeing more data and more numbers. Completion this week of proposed 2016-2017 school budgets should free up central offices’ resources to gather those numbers. Vilaseca said an important place to move forward is compiling each school’s education offerings and then analyzing them for equity around programs and instruction. For example, he said, does one school offer two days of art and another three?
MCS board chair Kristin Blanchette pointed out that in many ways ANeSU districts are “already half merged.” The districts have already consolidated food service, transportation, information technology and special education under management of the supervisory union. Others noted that because of these consolidations, ANeSU has already saved money for schools across the SU. Vilaseca observed that while one could theoretically present the current ANeSU structure to the Board of Education and find at least one sympathetic listener, he didn’t believe that the whole board would approve a plan that merely preserved the status quo.
The Monkton board raised different sides of the question about how a district merger would affect local participation. Stanley said she understood the concern about “losing a school board at each school and that direct connection from this community.” MCS board member Robert Radler countered that each town would be represented in a merged board and that “if people care, they’re going to show up.”
Board member Marikate Kelley asked whether Monkton, given its geographic location as equidistant from three union high schools — Vergennes, Mount Abraham and Champlain Valley — should consider merging with VUHS or CVU. This question sparked discussion, but overall all MCS board members voiced their support for the study committee moving forward with an ANeSU-focused merger.
Blanchette likely addressed the point of view of many students when she reported her child’s strong desire to stay at her current high school.
“My daughter, who’s in ninth grade, we were talking about this a while ago and she’s like, ‘I don’t want to go to CVU, I don’t want to go to Vergennes, I want to go to Mount Abe,” said Blanchette. “That’s where she goes. That’s where she wants to go. She likes the sports. She has lots of friends. She loves it. She loves it.”
Some MCS board members voiced concern about moving more slowly than neighboring schools toward unification and losing out on the “Accelerated Merger” tax benefits. And, indeed, ANeSU’s two neighboring SUs in Addison County and a few in counties north and south are on the fast track.
The State Board of Education approved Addison Central Supervisory Union’s accelerated merger plan in mid-December, and the Addison Northwest plan on Tuesday — both will go before voters March 1. Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union residents on Tuesday approved that districts unification plan (see story, Page 1A).
But a look around the state shows ANeSU in step with most Vermont districts — in fact, slightly ahead simply by having a committee formed and up and running.
According to an Agency of Education spokeswoman, 23 supervisory unions — out of 46 SUs in Vermont — have formed Act 46 study committees. That means that half of all supervisory unions statewide have even begun the study process.
Of those 23 with study committees, only nine — roughly 20 percent — have notified the Agency of Education of their intention to pursue an “Accelerated Merger.”
At the conclusion of last Thursday’s discussion in Monkton, Stanley voiced appreciation for the board’s input.
“I can definitely express to the committee the interest of the Monkton board in moving forward,” she said.
Reflecting on the challenges of the Act 46 discussion, Stanley said that “it’s great to have the discussion and have the different opinions. It’s just that we need to start channeling them in a forward direction, so that we’re accomplishing something even with all the opinions in the mix.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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