State OK’s ANwSU merger plan

VERGENNES — As expected, on Tuesday afternoon the Vermont Board of Education approved the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union’s Final Report on unification including the formal Articles of Unification.
That unanimous decision, which came after a 35-minute presentation by ANwSU officials in Barre before the state board, paves the way for a March 1 vote in the five ANwSU communities on whether to unite the four union schools under the governance of one Unified District Board.
“We are very excited to be given the green light to go ahead and continue to get the public to understand the advantages of unification for students and taxpayers alike,” said ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning.
The Board of Education also approved the Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union’s unification proposal on Tuesday. The Fair Haven-area school district, which includes Orwell, will be reorganized as the Slate Valley Unified Union District if OK’d by voters on April 12.
In the Vergennes-area ANwSU, residents on Town Meeting Day will also vote for a dozen directors to serve on that one school board. That body will include four members each from Vergennes and Ferrisburgh, two from Addison, and one each from Panton and Waltham.  
A yes vote in all five ANwSU communities will be required for one-board governance to become law in ANwSU, which now operates with five boards running its four schools.
Act 46, enacted last year, created incentives for districts that merge governance and penalties for those that fail to do so. ANwSU officials believe state officials will eventually merge districts that do not choose do to so on their own, something that Act 46 gives the state the authority to do.
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.
Highlights of the Articles of Agreement, which are part of the Final Report that may be found at, are:
• 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. The new district will assume all debts and operating surpluses, if any. That property will be returned to the towns if it is no longer used for educational purposes, according to the articles.
• 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.
Act 46 states, “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.”
• 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 also includes a chart of potential tax savings.
The chart states, while making no adjustments for Common Levels of Appraisals (CLAs), that unification would shave about 15 cents off tax rates in Ferrisburgh and Addison in the 2017-2018 school year and about 13 cents in those towns’ rates the following year.
The savings in those same years in Vergennes, Panton and Waltham would be between 3 and 5 cents, according to the estimates.
In the following three years, through the 2021-2022 school year, savings in all towns compared to projections without unification would be about 17, 15 and 13 cents, respectively, according to the estimates.
The report makes other cases for 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.
• “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.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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